There's a scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a prosperous Elmer Fudd walks past a park bench filled with the loafing, groveling caricatures of Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson. At the end of the bench, Fudd spies our hero and exclaims: "Bugs Bunny! What are you doing hanging around with these bums? They'll never amount to anything!"
Elvis Costello fans might be equally indignant about Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach that has Angie Dickinson and the rest of the Riunite-on-ice swinger set all a-twitter. Elvis! What are you doing hanging around with that bum? He'll never amount to anything!
Across 20 years, Costello's biggest talent has been taking pop music and stretching it in every direction. He's packed his songs with an uncommon intelligence and the kinds of passions — bitterness, vanity, and political outrage, to name three of his favorites — that pop music never dealt with before Bob Dylan, and has rarely troubled with since. So why team with Bacharach, a composer whose cloying melodies have insinuated themselves into our collective consciousness like root rot? Worse still, the biggest weakness of Memory's songs is their lack of the catchy, commercial-jingle hooks that Bacharach's famous for. The symphonic melodies don't stick and only serve to recall "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," burning that song into the listener's brain like a satanic mantra.
What is salvageable on Painted From Memory amounts to one lovely track, "God Give Me Strength," already available on the soundtrack to Grace of My Heart. It's true that Costello's voice, once a pinched, nasty little whine, has matured into a formidable instrument of power and persuasion. His always-gorgeous vibrato has been made even more effective by an expanded vocal range, while a more confident singing style takes Elvis into areas of emotional vulnerability that the angry young Britpunk would never have attempted. But it's not a voice that plays well against fluegelhorn, syrupy strings, cheesy "Say a Little Prayer" background vocals, or any of the other gruesomely baroque touches that Bacharach provides.
If Costello's going to insist on collaborating, he might try hooking up with someone like Lou Reed or Paul Westerberg, punk orphans who've struggled mightily to use the limitations of rock music to approach adult themes, but who've also stayed faithful to the form. Now that's what friends are for.