Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach are two of pop music's finest songwriters, although they've traditionally come from very different directions — Costello has leaned toward anger and vitriol while Bacharach is a classic soft-focus sentimentalist. Together, however, each balances and enhances the other. Painted From Memory is the remarkable result of their partnership.
Like Frank Sinatra's esteemed concept albums of love and loss, Painted From Memory is 12 songs of undiluted heartache. Costello, who wrote the lyrics and sings, trades his usual wordplay for declarations of suffering that are almost embarrassingly direct, which is why they're so powerful. Bacharach's music flirts with his peak 1960s period, and the sweetly melodic arrangements counterpoint Costello's longing.
Some have criticized Costello's singing here, but his gruff voice is limited in range, not emotion, and he brings a depth to these songs that more polished singers could not. There's a quality in Costello's voice that has always suggested a mix of righteous anger and a loser's esteem; he feels he's owed something, but is never quite sure he deserves anything. The combination is powerful and quite beautiful.
For all of its painful honesty, Painted From Memory sometimes offers a Fred Astaire version of heartache — the lushness establishing an almost cosmopolitan distance — but Costello's realness, his almost desperate crooning, gives the songs a devastating humanity. "Those eyes I tried to capture, they are lost to me now forever," he sings. "They smile for someone else, and so these had to be painted from memory."
A mountain of Kleenex won't be enough.