NEW YORK — Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach sat in a Motel lounge explaining why their musical partnership wasn't as odd as it seemed. The usually voluble Costello did most of the talking.
Bacharach listened, and not just to his younger friend. He smiled in recognition upon hearing the first few notes of one of his songs, "The Look of Love," quietly playing in the background.
He asked Costello — maybe seriously, maybe as a subtly competitive joke — if he had arranged to pipe in the instrumental version of Dusty Springfield's classic. Costello shot him a sardonic smile. It wasn't the first time he'd been interrupted in public by Bacharach's work.
"It happens all the time," he said.
Costello wasn't expecting to hear "Radio Radio" at the Regency. There's a better chance, someday, of hearing something from Painted From Memory, the new collaboration between the resurgent king of lounge music and the Brit who surfed the first wave of punk rock in the 1970s.
They first worked together three years ago when filmmaker Allison Anders asked them to pair for a song on the soundtrack to Grace of My Heart. They wrote "God Give Me Strength" by phone and fax machine, coming face-to-face only to record.
Costello was so pleased he suggested a longer project, one in which they could actually write together in the same room. The result is a moody song cycle about lost love, with lush orchestration, reminiscent of such Frank Sinatra albums as In the Wee Small Hours.
"It's a pretty good theme for the both of us," Bacharach said. "I've always been inclined to write romantic music, hopefully from the heart. There are not a lot of up-tempo songs in my catalog,"
It takes a look beneath the surface to find their common ground. Costello is an encyclopedia of musical knowledge who'll try anything, from rock to country to classical. often to the detriment of his careen He performed Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" in concert 20 years ago.
When he stood in a tuxedo performing before an orchestra in New York City's Radio City Music Hall this month, Costello fulfilled a dream that dates to his father's days leading a dance-hall band.
Many of Bacharach's songs go down easy, but Costello appreciates the complex melodies and the way they can convey emotion even without words. Bacharach may be popular in lounges, but that's not how he defines himself.
"If you want to put any label on it — cocktail music or easy-listening music — I'm not going to be angry with that," he said. "I don't necessarily agree. I don't think 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' is easy listening."
The pair worked hard to bridge musical differences and come up with a true product of teamwork.
"There was nothing to be gained in trying to prove the point that we could make some sort of Frankenstein's monster out of the most extreme edges," Costello said. "The hybrid of 'Pump It Up' and 'What's New, Pussycat' might seem like something of a road crash."
Costello was pleased when one critic wrote that a song was "absolute Bacharach." He had written half of it, and he took the critique as proof that he and Bacharach could speak in one voice.
"It's also the work of two craftsmen, who know what we're doing — two people who are willing to explore and stick with something, whether it's one note or one ban and not let it go until we know that it's right," Bacharach said.
The experience taught Costello a new economy in lyric writing. Bacharach may look the epitome of California cool, but he would put his foot down when Costello would return from a writing session and try to cram a few extra syllables into a line.
Bacharach is a man who once got into a fierce argument when writing "That's What Friends Are For," insisting that the first word in the song be "and." It didn't really mean anything; he just liked the sound of it. And he wouldn't let it go.
The discipline helped Costello, whose songs can be wordy and dense. Costello also helped Bacharach, partly weaning him from synthesizers to more organic instruments, like the bass flute that opens "In the Darkest Place." Costello said his aversion to electronics conies from his "Steely Dan phobia."
The songs are particularly demanding for Costello as a vocalist, even if he has worked noticeably to improve as a singer over the past few years.
Sometimes, though, the songs are too demanding. especially when performed live. In an odd way, Costello found this to be part or their appeal. He was stunned during a tour of Italy earlier this year when "God Give Me Strength" drew the loudest and longest ovations he had ever received. People seemed to appreciate his struggle.
"Maybe people see this is a fallible vocalist," he said. "This is somebody who's working at the very edge of my ability to reach for something we've composed that is beautiful."
The two would like to work together again, and are doing a limited series of concerts. Costello jokes about a Burt & Elvis-palooza next year "where we just go on stage for three days and play every song we know"
Much will depend on whether their new songs find an audience. They've been hustling to get the word out; Costello had the pull to get them both on Late Show With David Letterman, while Bacharach's appeal won a booking on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee.
And they are asking radio stations to find room for the new material in between Celine Dion songs.
"These songs, without any sort of compromise on my part or on Burt's part, can go in there," Costello said. "And yet they're more real than much of the music that's there."