When Elvis Costello arrived on the music scene in the late 1970s, his image hardened up fast: another young man of the punk/new wave persuasion, spitting out angry songs that had little use for romance or sentimentality.
Not the sort of fellow likely one day to be collaborating with Burt Bacharach, who during Costello's early childhood was writing lush, romantic melodies for songs like "I Say a Little Prayer" and "What's New Pussycat?"
Not a chance, your average Elvis Costello fan would have said 20 years ago.
But Costello knew better — and now he and Bacharach have cut a CD called Elvis Costello With Burt Bacharach: Painted From Memory (Mercury), which they are supporting with a tour that brings them to Radio City tonight.
"I was always a fan of his," says Costello. "I'd listen to the songs he'd written for Dionne Warwick on the versions that were popular in Britain, by singers like Cilla Black, and then when Dionne's version came over, I'd listen to that one, too.
"I suppose they were a part of all the pop music I grew up with, but they were different. There was something different in the structure. They were more complicated, more changes, and I'd try to figure out how he did it. So I knew his songs very well."
And he knows them better now.
"Lyrically, I appreciated the songs more as I got older. When I first heard 'Anyone Who Had a Heart,' I liked it, but after I got older and had more experience with that sort of thing in my own life, it took on a different and deeper meaning to me."
Bacharach's and Costello's paths didn't cross much over the years, but they finally got together a couple of years ago to write "God Give Me Strength" for the movie "Grace of My Heart." It took a Grammy nomination, and Costello was so pleased he suggested they do a whole record.
Bacharach, today an elegant 70, agreed — in part, judging from the result, because he saw in the 44-year-old Costello someone who would work as his musical peer, not a fan.
"That's how it worked. It's great to work with someone you grew up on and whose music you've always admired," Costello says. "But I'm not just a lucky fan who won a fairy-godmother wish.
"What ended up happening, which was great, was that we edited each other's work. He gives me credit for the lyrics, but he was a tremendous influence. Writing on your own, you can bend the rules. He'd look at a line I'd written and tell me to take out the extra word."
Meanwhile, Costello, who has recorded with the Brodsky Quartet and other non-rock musicians, was taking the same kind of look at the music.
"The song 'This House Is Empty Now' was already quite complex when he played it for me. But I told him I thought it needed a bridge. So he took this little sketch I'd done, and he came back with this incredible piece of music. That was typical of the collaboration. He'd suggest a flute here. I suggested the oboe in 'Long Division.' We took the strings away from part of 'I Still Have That Other Girl' because we didn't want to overwhelm the song."
It was an education, says Costello, just watching Bacharach conduct and study the playbacks. "On one song, on the playback, there was this faint popping sound, and after he heard it he said he must have unknowingly been snapping his fingers. I said we could take it out and he said no, he kind of liked it, so we left it in."
Bacharach fans won't have any trouble recognizing his imprint on this project, and perhaps the mark of its success is that Costello fans can't miss Elvis' contributions, either.
There's an edge to the lyrics, some wariness and sadness among those swelling orchestrations.
"I've always felt I was a pretty good ballad singer," says Costello. "When I first recorded, a lot of the music was fast and furious because I had so much I wanted to say and that was the way to do it.
"In the last five years, that's changed. I've developed my voice more, for a different sound. The rock-combo stuff is a great sound, but it's not the only sound, and it's just not what I'm doing now."
Conversely, making a record like this wasn't part of any grand plan. "I never plan anything," he says. "That's why I've been able to collaborate with other artists, like Paul McCartney or Burt, when the opportunity came up. It's a dream for me to do it, but I'm also ready for it. I've been around. I know what I'm doing."
He admits, though, that opening the tour at Radio City means taking a deep breath. "I'm looking forward to it," he says. "But it's not exactly an out-of-town town opening, is it?"
The Radio City show will be divided into segments, with Bacharach and Costello each doing some of their solo material before coming together with a 30-piece orchestra to do the tunes on Painted From Memory — plus a few others.
"I won't be doing any rock 'n' roll songs," says Costello. "I don't want fans to come to the show thinking that's what they'll hear. But I have been learning some of Burt's earlier songs."
Actually, he's been learning them for 30 years.