The photos of them together are as dichotomous as you expect their collaboration to be. Costello looks like a shifty bum from the Vine Street Mission mingling with one of its wealthy benefactors in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. What weedy patch of common ground will be staked out here?
Indeed, the prospect of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach making music together was ... dicey. Both are accomplished (if not monolithic) songwriters in their own realms, but those realms require some travelling in between. Costello built his city on acerbic rock 'n' roll, Bacharach on satin-pillow pop. The collaboration is less a meeting on middle ground and more a move — or maturation — by Costello to Bacharach's orchestrated territory, a move not that shocking after Costello's lengthy and bitter divorce over the last decade from his post-punk past. For Bacharach, heck — he gets the chance to work with a younger, sharper songwriter and boost his hip quotient dramatically.
Painted From Memory is a good move for both artists, but fans of both camps will want to pace themselves on its diet of rich arrangements and creamy vocals. Well, Costello's vocals will never earn the adjective "creamy"; here, though, his transformation from angry young genius to worldly wise aesthete is finally complete. He's not trained or suited for melodies this sweet or arrangements this lush, but his patient effort (and his keen understanding of The Song) wins him more than a few moments of clarity, precision and chills ("I Still Have That Other Girl"). In fact, his smoky, nasally voice — like a tuned French EXhale — serves to bring the swank, loungey Bacharach arrangements down to the masses, like discovering a co-worker is the life of a Maple Ridge party hosted by the late Alexandre Hogue. Lyrically, Costello is no Hal David, and his more obvious metaphors sometimes clash with Bacharach's whimsical instrumentation and insistence on goofy backing choruses ("Tears at the Birthday Party"). The constant mid-tempo throughout the album begins to illicit sensory depravation about mid-album, but the occasional solid nut ("The Long Division," "The Sweetest Punch") keep Painted From Memory on track — all until the closer, "God Give Me Strength," the pair's first collaboration, an bloated song from an awful film (Grace of My Heart) that tried to see just how much they could accomplish together. The preceding project is worlds better and likely will grow as a mild classic in years to come.