Wipe that surprised look off your face. There's nothing strange about Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach pooling their talents for an album.
Costello long ago proved his passion for any music that's good, by collaborating with severe string quartets, cunning jazz combos, raging rock bands and Nashville cats. Bacharach, meanwhile, shares some key writing quirks with the English star. Each is fascinated by long, snaking melodies and elaborate arrangements. And each possesses a ravenous appetite for pop's full palate of genres.
Bacharach shot to fame by combining small sambas, muted R&B and elements of musical theater. Ironically, Elvis lost his mass audience by pursuing just that broad a sweep.
The two musical explorers got their first chance to collaborate on the 1996 soundtrack to Grace of My Heart. Set in the hit-making Brill Building of the '60s, the movie meant to capture the classic period when songwriters confined in cubicles churned out brilliance on demand. For the soundtrack, Costello and Bacharach conspired to write a typical hit of the day — "God Give Me Strength," which also appears here.
The song never would have made it in the '60s. It's just too complicated, tortured and strange. But it proved a solid jumping-off point for something of real artistic worth. Bacharach and Costello prove that point with this wonderful, full collaboration album, Painted From Memory.
Make no mistake. It's not an easy album to fathom — at least at first. One assumes Bacharach wrote a good number of the melodies — if so, now that he's 70, his tunes simply don't have the ease or kick of his lounge classics. They're far more severe and wily. But the tunes now boast a mature depth and beauty, aided by the context provided by Costello. The British star gives these songs their necessary edge.
While a different singer might have made the songs seem self-conscious, Costello makes them complex. The ugly grandeur of his vocals wholly redefines the range of lounge singing. Better, Elvis' lyrics top Bacharach's work with better observations than the latter ever got out of old wordsmith Hal David. Costello takes pains to reference David at times, with allusions to empty houses and people rushing by. Yet only Costello would grace a Bacharach song with a line like, "Does the extinguished flame care about the darkness?"
In the songs' arrangements, Barachach truly outdoes himself. While you'll find winking references to his trademark muted horns and velvety strings, there's none of the corn of some early recordings. Never have you heard an orchestra and horn section sound more spare. The strings don't just sweeten. They're equal collaborators in the melody.
Better yet, the end result doesn't repeat anything these stars have done on their own. Instead, it finds some new ground between them, letting them bond through a love for stretching pop to the limit.