With his biting cynicism and rough vocal style, Elvis Costello is not someone you'd expect to hear crooning Bacharach tunes. The man, after all, writes pretty good tunes alone.
But Costello has taste, very good taste, and Bacharach has always been a man with a melody in search of a good lyric writer. He finds it with Costello. These 12 songs, all from Bacharach, with Costello writing lyrics and adding his sardonic vocals, work together like velvet and leather.
All carry the familiar Bacharach theme of love gone wrong, and Costello's vocals put an edge to the tunes unlike any collaborator Bacharach has worked with. These are wrenching odes to love with a middle-age perspective, from "I Still Have That Other Girl" to "This House Is Empty Now," ending with "God Give Me Strength."
This sugar-and-pepper approach explodes into a song cycle of bittersweet beauty, backed by lush arrangements from Bacharach, who joins on piano throughout. Costello has been heading down this path for years (his album with the Brodsky Quartet from 1993 is the most obvious example), but Bacharach is one of Costello's huge influences (as Bacharach has been to many pop groups — Oasis, for one) and the British-born rocker has long wanted to work with the man who gave the world a long string of hits from the mid-1960s onward.
Costello tames his vocals here, leaving in the despair, removing the Angry Young Man. He is sorrowful, mournful and wondering why he is now alone without his muse. He never resolves the problem, ending the cycle with the hope that he wins some measure of strength despite it all.
And Bacharach's melodies fix snugly around the voice, holding it gently, even as Costello's hiss dominates. Bacharach's arrangements are familiar, but then Bacharach's "sound" is so distinctive — the light brass riffs behind the music, the complex melodic structures that resolve in major seventh chords.