If clothes made the man, Elvis Costello's tuxedo would have turned him into a suavely heartsick pop balladeer when he and Burt Bacharach started their tour together at Radio City Music Hall on Tuesday night. A small orchestra accompanied them as they performed the new songs they wrote together for the album Painted From Memory (Mercury) along with medleys of Mr. Bacharach's hits and new orchestral arrangements of Costello songs like "Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison."
Twenty years ago it might have been been hard to imagine Mr. Costello alongside Mr. Bacharach, a Hollywood hit-maker who placed lilting songs on the pop charts throughout the rock revolutions of the 1960's. Yet while Mr. Costello emerged during the late-1970's heyday of punk, he soon proved to be a pop scholar, delving into genres from pop to country to soul, savoring craftsmanship no matter how the music was packaged.
Mr. Costello is a longtime Bacharach fan. He acknowledged his debts by performing a song he wrote in 1978, "Just a Memory," a virtual hommage to the songs Mr. Bacharach wrote with the lyricist Hal David. The new songs, with lyrics by Mr. Costello and music by both Mr. Costello and Mr. Bacharach, show what Mr. Costello prized most. He ignored the cheerful or uplifting Bacharach who wrote songs like "What the World Needs Now" and "What's New, Pussycat?" and zeroed in on Mr. David's most desolate lyrics and Mr. Bacharach's most oblique melodies. "This House Is Empty Now," one of the best Costello-Bacharach collaborations, can't help alluding to the Bacharach-David song "A House Is Not a Home."
Concealed in the gentle catchiness of Mr. Bacharach's songs are strange melodic leaps and shifty, asymmetrical phrasing out of jazz and early 20th-century classical music. Phrases start out at one speed and suddenly skip through a flurry of syllables or jump nearly an octave. Dionne Warwick, Bacharach's finest interpreter, managed to make the tunes seem nonchalant, but that was a deception made possible by superb technique. Mr. Costello, whose baritone is capable of a husky croon, had to strain to make it through some of the cantilevered melodies of the new songs, and his concentration on hitting the notes made it hard for him to convey feeling as well.
Another problem was the perennial shortcoming of Mr. Bacharach's music: its easy-listening arrangements. With ticking drums and glassy-eyed phrases from saxophone or fluegelhorn, Mr. Bacharach's orchestrations muffle emotion like a layer of shag carpeting. Unlike, for instance, the lush, pristine orchestrations Gordon Jenkins wrote for Frank Sinatra, Mr. Bacharach's arrangements seem oblivious to the singer's pain; they offer Valium instead of a shoulder to cry on. Johnny Mandel's more yielding arrangement of "Painted From Memory" had the breathing room that Mr. Bacharach's arrangements lacked.
In a concert meant to show off new songs, the most moving performance was of an old one: Mr. Costello's "Almost Blue," played as a simple duet with Steve Naive on piano. Yet the Costello-Bacharach songs are smart and intricate and deserve some patience. At Radio City, Mr. Costello was sometimes able to move from studied recitations to touching ones, as he did in "What's Her Name Today?" (an accusation aimed at a lady-killer) and "I Still Have That Other Girl," about a lover on the rebound. They're not easy songs, technically or emotionally, and as the tour continues, Mr. Costello may grow into more of them.