It was 10 o'clock on a Saturday night, and several hundred people were standing around in a record store having a religious experience: Burt Bacharach was giving a miniconcert in a megastore. They were mostly hip 30-somethings, not candidates for hip replacement. This wasn't the Westbury Music Fair; the stage was not revolving.
A year ago, when Mr. Bacharach played that Long Island institution — an in-the-round theater that looked as if it hadn't been redecorated since "Don't Make Me Over" was a hit — the composer was joined by his longtime muse and psychic friend, Dionne Warwick. Though at the time Mr. Bacharach's comeback was already under way, there were only a handful of people in the place who couldn't qualify for a senior's discount at any multiplex. But on Oct. 3 at the new Virgin Megastore on Union Square, the 70-year-old composer had a new partner, the former punk Elvis Costello, 44, and a younger audience. Together, this twosome has written a new CD, called Painted From Memory.
The CD's success among a new generation of fans begs the question: How did the king of schmaltz become the latest word in cool?
Mr. Bacharach, who with the lyricist Hal David once posed the musical question "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," and Mr. Costello, who in punk's heyday wondered "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," have earned glowing reviews for their new release.
Press for Painted From Memory has been tremendous, thanks in part to the duo's salesmanship. If you missed them on Late Night With David Letterman, you could have caught them plugging it on the morning chat shows. They have made it the album of the moment.
On a makeshift stage that night at Virgin, Mr. Costello, with Mr. Bacharach's piano accompaniment, soared through a half-dozen songs, including their first collaboration, the aching gospel-inspired "God Give Me Strength," from the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. The performance was not the extravagant affair that their Radio City Music Hall concert promises to be on Tuesday night. Mr. Bacharach was not wearing a tuxedo, but a Polo golf shirt with a sweater tied nonchalantly around his shoulders. Still, in its impromptu, low-tech, cheeseless fashion, this little performance was more spectacular in some ways than the more elaborate concerts could hope to be.
The evening fed, as do the CD's dozen new songs, an audience starved for unabashed sentimentality but too sophisticated to gobble up the Titanic treacle of Celine Dion. It is the same audience that applauds a line at the end of John Waters's latest film, Pecker. The characters in that art-world satire raise their glasses and toast the end of irony. It is wishful thinking on the part of those who've wearied of unfunny comedy, horror films about other horror films, expensive clothes that look like tatters, and advertising that makes fun of the product being sold. Audiences are longing for things that simply are what they are — simply funny, simply moving, simply beautiful.
Such straightforward emotion has always been Mr. Bacharach's forte, whether it was Dusty Springfield's ditching her spouse for another man "24 Hours From Tulsa," the Carpenters' longing to be "Close to You" or Roberta Flack's reminding us that there's more to love than "Making Love." That's what makes him so refreshing right now. Mr. Costello has called Painted From Memory a CD about heartbreak. But it is the kind of misery that makes you want to hum along.
It comes at a time when Mr. Bacharach is enjoying an enormous resurgence of popularity. In recent years, a new generation of fans has discovered his work through such vehicles as last year's hit comedy film My Best Friend's Wedding, the soundtrack of which included a reggae refashioning of "I Say a Little Prayer," and through other offbeat cover versions of his songs. Even the electronic pop band Erasure did a chirpy version of the Perry Como hit Magic Moments, on their CD Cowboy. The TNT cable chanel televised a tribute concert last April, featuring contemporary performers like the Ben Folds Five and Sheryl Crow, amid enormous hoopla.
Meanwhile, concert-style productions of Promises, Promises in New York and Los Angeles acquainted theatergoers with the joys of Mr. Bacharach. Then there was his cameo in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. A three-CD box set of his greatest hits — The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, to be released on Nov. 3 — won't hurt his reputation, either.
If Painted From Memory sells well, it just might be a bellwether, signaling a return not only of Mr. Bacharach but also of honest emotion. If it doesn't, to paraphrase one of his hits, I just don't know what I'll do with myself.