Sydney Morning Herald, October 2, 1998

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Painted From Memory

Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach

Bernard Zuel

[first part of sentence missing...] pop craftsman of the '60s and the most significant songwriter of the post-punk wave may suggest a dabble in the sandbox of the past. But Painted From Memory is not a retro album. It is not slavishly backward looking, not seduced by the image of the "Bacharach sound" or the 'Bacharach style" which are mouthed almost as much these days as Brian Wilson and The Beatles. Yet you could place this album in the mid-'60s and the early '70s just as easily as the late '90s. The cliche timeless for once applies.

The best recent comparison is Jimmy Webb's 10 Easy Pieces. Both these albums recall landmarks such as Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle's thematic albums of the '50s, songbook collections such as Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter and Sinatra's collections of songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Rod McKuen in the '60s — that is, albums united in mood and music. On Painted From Memory, the songs — music by Costello and Bacharach, lyrics by Costello — are almost all of love lost, of love betrayed, of love fractured and tottering, couched in lush melodies but with arrangements which are more sparing. You could draw a line to In The Wee Small Hours except that the melancholy of that album is here more muted, more sanguine even. These melodies — the best of Bacharach's career since the early '70s — stretch Costello's voice to the limit, and sometimes beyond. You can imagine the songs would sound even better sung by a Dionne Warwick at her peak but then that's true of many singers, and should not of itself diminish the value of the vocals here. It is the character of that voice — the flaws, the depth, the realness — that matter as much as tonal quality. And, as with the lyrics, saying more with less.

These lyrics are remarkably straightforward, plain speaking almost even while housing complex emotional content. As with the best lyricists with whom Bacharach has worked, the usually wordy Costello has pared back his lines to their core. The point with these arrangements is that nothing dominates: not the swelling strings, not the glistening chorus hook, not the words. They are all deployed in equal measure to facilitate the voice, the song travelling. And what songs. "That Other Girl" creeps from piano-led verses into grand choruses which almost exult; "Such Unlikely Lovers" weaves a tale of surprising hope around a jazz-inflected vocal line; the title track recalls the likes of Richard Rodgers and Sammy Cahn with its delicate tone and muscular underpinnings. This is pop music of the highest calibre.

There are some miscalculations. The Moog-like synth solo in "The Long Division" and the sub-Steely Dan guitar solo in "This House Is Empty Now" are flat notes in outstanding songs of heartbreak — both seemingly hangovers from Bacharach's MOR days in the '70s and '80s. And a male voice in the backing vocals, or even a deeper voiced woman than the backing here would have enhanced some of these songs.But Painted From Memory is that rare beast an album made for adults which challenges, a collection of songs about love without a saccharine or maudlin note, a contemporary album which would stand up in any age.

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Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, October 2, 1998


Bernard Zuel reviews Painted From Memory.

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1998-10-02 Sydney Morning Herald Metro page 06.jpg
Page scan.

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