Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello might seem like an odd couple.
"Some people are thinking 'middle-of-the-road pop king meets king of punk,' " says Bacharach. "But it ain't that way."
Bacharach and Costello have just released Painted From Memory, a collaborative album that grew out of their Grammy-nominated song God Give Me Strength, written for the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart. (The song closes the new album.)
Fans who know the output of the duo well understand the connection right away, Costello says. But they have to get beyond the songwriters' stereotypical images, which barely hint at the variety of their work. There's a lot more to Bacharach, for example, than the "Mr. Sophisticated" image he spoofed in an Austin Powers cameo.
"A lot of younger people who've gotten into his music think he's sitting around in a tuxedo like James Bond," Costello says.
Corrects Bacharach: "I actually walk around in jeans and a T-shirt like any normal guy going to get some bagels in the morning."
Though best known for pop staples such as "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "Walk on By" and "That's What Friends Are For," Bacharach had his first No. 1 hit on the country charts (Marty Robbins' "The Story of My Life" in 1957). And most of his '60s hits were R&B smashes (for Chuck Jackson, the Drifters and others.)
He co-wrote the memorable Western-themed "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and conducted Marlene Dietrich's orchestra. Altogether, he has composed an astonishing 41 top 20 hits, including six No. 1 singles.
Costello, meanwhile, has moved far beyond the angry young man pose and traditional rock lineup of his early albums.
They were already admirers of each other's work. Before their collaboration, Costello recorded three songs that Bacharach wrote with lyricist Hal David. His own "Accidents Will Happen" and "Just a Memory" tried to emulate Bacharach's style ("getting it wrong but getting it fresh").
For his part, Bacharach was enthralled by The Juliet Letters, Costello's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet.
Costello sang the lead vocals on Painted From Memory, wrote the lyrics and collaborated with Bacharach on the music. But the lush arrangements, rich in flute, piccolo, vibes, tuba and flugelhorn, are Bacharach's; he also played piano and conducted the 24-piece orchestra. The duo's intense five-day writing sessions were separated by months, owing to physical distance: Costello lives in Dublin, Bacharach in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
"I left at the door quite a lot of things I thought were no use in this collaboration: the loud guitars, the claustrophobic sound," Costello says. "Anguished ballad writing — that's where we found the most common ground."
Costello says he thought he was a perfectionist until he met the obsessive Bacharach. He loved watching the master at work.
"He has a disposition toward certain intervals. There are very few plain triads. He likes richly colored chords. Burt has refined a unique kind of a grammar of music and combined it with a rhythmic sense and a melodic shape that is not symmetrical," Costello says. "He breaks up the meter and spaces it an odd way, giving you that feeling of catching your breath. It feels very sensual to sing this music."
Bacharach and Costello will perform together in New York Oct. 13, Washington, D.C., Oct. 14 and Los Angeles Oct. 20. A more extensive tour could follow if the record, which fits into no obvious radio format, finds an audience.
A jazz adaptation by Bill Frisell of Painted From Memory (featuring Costello, Cassandra Wilson and others on vocals) is scheduled for 1999. Costello says he has also planned his next five albums — but won't reveal their nature. (Painted From Memory is the first release in a unique deal Costello signed with PolyGram that enables him to release discs on the conglomerate's classical and jazz labels as well as on pop/rock imprint Mercury.)
Bacharach is more forthcoming. Many of his best recordings will appear on The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-disc boxed set due Nov. 3 from Rhino, encompassing 75 tracks from four decades and many labels. It took several years for Rhino to get the rights to all the recordings, and executives there say they were pleasantly surprised that Bacharach happened to come into style again just in time for the release.
Also coming: Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night, a tribute concert starring Costello, Dionne Warwick, Barenaked Ladies, Ben Folds Five, Chrissie Hynde, Luther Vandross and Wynonna, to be released Nov. 24 as a CD and home video by N2K. TNT, which originally aired the special, will rebroadcast it in late November, followed by PBS in December.
There have been two other Bacharach tribute albums in the past year. The Julia Roberts film My Best Friend's Wedding features no fewer than five of his songs, including a scene where restaurant diners join in a rousing version of "I Say a Little Prayer." Oasis put his face on a CD cover, and the Cranberries, Michael Stipe and Massive Attack have recorded his songs.
It's just the latest in a slew of tributes, tipped hats and cameos for the suddenly hot Bacharach.
"A lot of these kids in these bands were not even born when the songs came out," he says, amazed by his rediscovery after several lean years.
"You can't plan this. You can get the best promotion person and the best publicity agent, and you can't make this happen."