Should anyone have predicted back in 1977 that the angular, bespectacled and bitterly venomous young man sneering his way through "Watching the Detectives" would one day team up with Burt Bacharach, laughter, surely, would have been the result.
Elvis Costello — Declan McManus to his mum — seemed, back then, as much the epitome of punk abrasiveness as Bacharach did the paragon of the mannered, contented and, frankly, bourgeois musical conservatives against whom the punks were railing.
Of course, during Costello's remarkably prolific late-'70s period, Bacharach already seemed a spent force. He had had no charting singles since the nauseatingly twee "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in 1969. Costello, by contrast, was churning them out: "Alison," "Detectives," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Pump it Up," "Oliver's Army" and "Accidents Will Happen" all attracted attention in the three years before the '70s came to a close.
That was then, however, and this is now. People grow older. Well, Costello grows older, anyway, Bacharach, to judge from the photographs, is blessed with a physiognomy stubbornly resilient to age and erosion.
Thus, to see the pair of them grinning out from the back cover of their collaborative album, Painted from Memory, is vaguely discomfiting. It's the sort of pairing of the luxuriant and the acerbic that you feel should be forbidden in some way,' if not actually by United Nations charter then, at least, by the rules of good sense. Ye gods. What next? Nana Mouskouri and Ani Difranco? Patti Smith and Celine Dion?
"The people in the clubs eventually run out of things to champion," says Costello, "so they automatically turn to the most improbable thing they can think of. And maybe they find that it's not as kitsch as they thought, but something with real and genuine substance."
Which, of course, is the process the enormous catalogue of work by Burt Bacharach (and his long-time lyricist Hal David) has undergone over the past few years. Easy listening, or "loungecore" as the meaninglessly hip would have it, is almost as popular today as it was in the late '60s when the likes of the Beatles, Stones, T-Rex, Slade and so on rose up and tried to stomp it to death. Hell, even Noel Gallagher likes it.
This is one reason Painted from Memory is a disturbing album. Does the collaboration mark the final seal of approval for Bacharach from a generation that began by rejecting him as a self-evident necessity? Or does it, rather, mark the canonisation of the formerly rebellious Costello by the doyen of the postwar establishment stylists?
Either conclusion is uncomfortable. For Costello, one suspects, the opportunity to team up with Bacharach was as much about extending his range and confounding his critics as it was about working with an idol. Certainly, he draws satisfaction from his ability to wrap himself in Bacharach's cloak almost to the point of invisibility.
"I like it when people say to me that this or that song is pure Bacharach," he says, "because I think, ‘Well, actually, I wrote that one — or, at least, I had a hand in writing it’."
Of course, Costello’s presence is manifest on the album. His singing is simply superb, his understanding of the bittersweet dynamics of classic Bacharachanalia absolute.
The overall style of the collection, however, seems far more Bacharach than Costello, full as it is of sweeping, lush arrangements, theatrical flourishes, and romantic interludes, leavened only occasionally by Costello's characteristic dry wit.
Perhaps, though where the pair share a marked similarity is in their respective reputations for professionalism and precision. It is these qualities, rather than passion or experimentation, which sound to have been most keenly exercised in the making of Painted from Memory.
The album was prompted by an initial one-off collaboration in the writing of the song "God Give Me Strength" for the 1997 movie Grace of My Heart. The song was nominated for a Grammy.
"I was already involved in the film, and I was asked if I wanted to write the big ballad with Burt Bacharach," Costello explains. "Well, it's not a proposition you have to think about for very long. It wasn't easy, because I’m in Dublin and Burt's in LA, and we didn't have much time, but eventually it started to happen, between the phone calls and the fax machine."
The remaining songs for the album were developed in a series of five-day bursts. There seems to have been little redundancy or oversupply in the process. "In the end, we had 11 songs, plus 'God Give Me Strength'," he says. "There was no need to write any more, because that's an album."
And so it came to be. Job done. Move on to the next project.
"I haven't listened to the record in a while now." Costello observes. "I'm doing the songs in concert, so I don't need to. Burt's music is very demanding vocally, especially in the higher registers. I think I can get around the melody of some of the harder songs better now than when we were recording."
Painted from Grace is by no means the first time Costello has collaborated with musicians well removed from the pop-rock tradition. Most notably, a few years back, he teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet to produce a heart-stoppingly beautiful album, The Juliet Letters.
Although he maintains he can't imagine ever reinventing himself as a classical or jazz composer, he is keen to continue to make sporadic incursions across genre boundaries. Last year, in a move designed to ensure such freedom, he signed contracts jointly with Mercury and Polygram Classics and Jazz. Unfortunately, subsequent corporate reorganisations bollocked the C&J division comprehensively.
"One of the problems is that sometimes you do something different and the people in your own record company don't really know what to do with it, so it isn't treated as well as it could be," he says.
"No disrespect, but if you're used to handling Boyzone albums, it will be difficult to handle anything too different. It makes sense to deal with people for whom classics and jazz are the music they know best."
Elvis Costello plays tonight at the Concert Hall. Supported by Chris Wilson.