New York Times, October 4, 1998

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Pop classicists leave the crowd behind

Stephen Holden


So too does the latest batch of songs by Elvis Costello, whose new album, Painted From Memory is his long-anticipated collaboration with the 70-year-old composer and arranger Burt Bacharach. Painted From Memory, a finely crafted collection of lovelorn ballads in which Mr. Costello flaunts his gift for quirky imagery, finds Mr. Bacharach returning enthusiastically to the hyper-romantic signature style of the 1960's hits he wrote, arranged and produced with the lyricist Hal David for Dionne Warwick.

Many of Mr. Bacharach's familiar musical mannerisms are flourished in the album's arrangements for a 24-piece orchestra: perky bossa nova rhythms, gently sputtering horns and the angular chromatic melodies that identify Mr. Bacharach as a modernist Cole Porter with an ear for rhythm-and-blues and be-bop. All 12 of the album's songs are vigorously tuneful, and one, "God Give Me Grace," which was introduced two years ago in the film Grace of My Heart, is a small masterpiece of soaring, unstrung angst.

If the recent revival of Mr. Bacharach's music comes with a tinge of camp, one reason may be that his sound is so distinctive (it amounted to its own 60's subgenre) that it is indelibly associated with such garish period fashions as beehive hairdos and shiny white go-go boots. Painted From Memory is fascinating because it is such a bold overlay of sensibilities from two different eras, juxtaposing the glamorous soundtrack behind those haircuts and boots with the residue of Mr. Costello's grim, stripped-down late-70's English post-punk sensibility.

The disparity between Mr. Bacharach's achingly beautiful music and Mr. Costello's raw, geeky voice with its adenoidal vibrato can be jarring. Mr. Bacharach's nervous melodies, which wed shifting time signatures, staccato diction and leaping intervals to a quasi-operatic Sturm und Drang, have always been notorious for the fiendish difficulties they present to singers. Even Ms. Warwick in her prime could sound almost out of breath by the end of a song like "I Say a Little Prayer." And throughout Painted from Memory, Mr. Costello audibly strains to master Mr. Bacharach's rangy tunes, sometimes falling flat. But once you become accustomed to his voice and its flaws, his stress actually contributes to the songs' aura of high drama.

Mr. Costello's past songs about relationships have often depicted love as a grotesque power struggle. Even his most overwrought monologues have paraded a kind of double vision, in which the songwriter is looking down on his characters and their problems. In adapting himself to Mr. Bacharach's unabashed romanticism, Mr. Costello has softened his irony and reined in his imperiousness.

At the same time, the narrators of these desperately unhappy ballads still express themselves in Mr. Costello's tricky language more often than they do in a semblance of everyday speech. Together these characters form a composite portrait of the rejected lover as an obsessive, self-lacerating emotional wreck. As always in Mr. Costello's lyrics, certain high-flown images ostentatiously call attention to themselves. "But do people living in Toledo? / Know that their name hasn't traveled very well? / And does anybody in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?" he wonders in "Toledo"? "God Give Me Grace" flaunts the image of a lover "washed out" of someone's memory "like a lip print on his shirt."

Although Painted from Memory is being marketed as a 60's-in-the-90's equivalent of one of Frank Sinatra's great 50's torch albums, it is too historically self-conscious to conjure the rock-bottom 3 A.M. anguish of Only the Lonely or In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. It is much closer in spirit to Linda Ronstadt's reverential 1980's homages to those classic wrist-slashers.

Correction, October 18, 1998
An article on Oct. 4 about a new recording by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach misstated the title of a song on the album. It is "God Give Me Strength," not "God Give Me Grace."

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New York Times, October 4, 1998

Stephen Holden reviews Painted From Memory and Duncan Sheik's Humming.


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