Uncut, November 1998

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The craftsmen's contract

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach / Painted From Memory

Ian MacDonald


Two giants of popular song collaborate

Only five years ago in the UK, it needed to be reaffirmed that Burt Bacharach is one of the greatest popular musicians of the second half of this century. Not that this was news; we knew that 35 years ago when those wonderful Dionne Warwick singles were coming out and other artists were fighting to release cover versions in their own home markets. But times and sensibilities changed after 1976, and, by the late-Eighties, Bacharach was seen, if seen at all, as part of the ironically tolerated Easy Listening aesthetic — soft-focus, sentimental, air-conditioned condominium music.

Bacharach's song-craft kept his reputation high among those in the same game during the Eighties, but it took Britpop to bring him back into style. Now here he is, the snazziest 70-year-old in the business, working with E. Costello, 32 years the junior of Bacharach's erstwhile sidekick, Hal David. Can Burt and young Declan see eye to eye?

Before we go further, it behoves us to say: "24 Hours From Tulsa," "Don't Make Me Over," "Anyone Who Had A Heart," "Walk On By," "Always Something There To Remind Me," "Reach Out For Me," "Wishin' And Hopin'," "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Trains And Boats And Planes," "Here Where There Is Love," "Make The Music Play," "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?," "I Say A Little Prayer," "What's New, Pussycat?," "This Guy's In Love With You," "The Look of Love," and "Close To You". Those for whom reading this list puts a lump in the throat will approach the present album with a mix of wistful hope and caution. The merely open-minded will have few expectations and hence very different responses.

The world of Bacharach/David sprang from the romantic positivism of middle-class, late-fifties America: the gentle sense of assurance conferred by the affluence of a glamour society. Then, the world — courtesy of Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, and Doris Day — was one's oyster in Cinemascope. Accordingly, the basis of Bacharach/David was the magic of romance, the "heavenliness" of love. From 1958's "Magic Moments" to "In The Land of Make Believe" recorded by Dusty Springfield on Dusty In Memphis a decade later, this theme, old-fashioned yet urbanely aware of itself, is constant.

Uncoincidentally, Bacharach's self-conducted studio sessions were a perpetual quest for that elusive "magic" take — a quest which often put enormous strain on his vocalists. Yet, when Bacharach and David split in 1971, the worldview on which their perfect alchemy of word and tone depended was already vanishing. Heaven, prayers, moondust, and starlight were just quaint playing cards to the hard-nosed sensationalist cultures of rock and funk, while feminists simply snorted at the "patriarchal" prescription for conjugal harmony proffered in "Wives And Lovers."

The crux of Painted From Memory is that Costello is the prototype of post-punk cynicism, the antithesis of the Bacharach/David mythos. How can such a mind adapt to the balmy sensibility behind the shimmering beauty of "Trains And Boats And Planes"? The answer is that, like their contemporaries, Bacharach and David were artistically both romantic and realistic. To their generation, romance was a compact against the inevitable pain of emotional loss: partly a faith, partly a noble fiction. At worst, this could lapse into the shallow ("Are You There With Another Girl?") or the twee ("You'll Never Get To Heaven"); at best, it set up a contrast between lush and harsh, creating starkly rhapsodic emotion embodied in a seamless narrative of line and lyric.

Many Bacharach/David songs are dark with disappointment and ache with loneliness. Costello, at 43, is old enough to slip into this tradition without a sneer, adopting or adapting its conventions as the mood, or Bacharach's music, takes him.

In the end, it's the difference between Bacharach's Sixties and Nineties expression which has permitted this unlikely alliance. Neither partner could have collaborated at an earlier stage of their careers. Aware of Hal David's role in articulating the feeling in his tunes and harmonies, Bacharach attempted semi-successfully to preserve this sensibility with his wife, Carole Bayer Sager, during the Eighties. Only recently can it have become obvious to him that the vernal spirit of his Sixties music is irretrievably gone, a past affair. It's not just that the world is different — that, below a certain age, no one has "affairs" any more; more that Bacharach's past bulks far larger than his future.

"In The Darkest Place" sets the agenda. There'll be moments of recollected magic, but fleeting ones. This is to be about regret, evanescence, solitude, yearning, twilight.

Does it come off?

Since two artists are involved, either or both could have let the side down. Bacharach doesn't. Given that his muse is a senior lady and that there's nothing here to match the springlike melodism of 30 years ago, he still produces music with a life and beauty of its own — pure Bacharach in every bar, tasteful and alert as ever, even if the feeling isn't always at the full, working instead in phases of quiescence and flare-up.

Songwriters half his age will absorb these pieces with real respect. It's fascinating, for instance, to see how much the mature Steely Dan derived from Bacharach — a debt underlined in the arrangement of "Such Unlikely Lovers" (which, in turn, borrows from Leigh/Richards "Young At Heart"). Respect can go too far, though, and it's a shame Costello didn't persuade Bacharach to simplify the curlicues in the chorus of "Toledo," which might thus have been commercial enough to make a modest hit.

The rest of the venture depends on our Elvis, which is where it deflates. There's always been a streak of ersatz about his writing, a sense of the head faking the heart's business. This was disguisable in his angry youth, for wit thrives on word-play and a certain steely superficiality. Yet his lyrics have always been mechanical, as if he read too much metaphysical verse at school and is anxious to keep his metaphors straight in case his former English master pops up and marks him out of 10.

That studious quality obtrudes here. Ever poetic conceit — larceny in "My Thief," mathematics in "The Long Division," boxing in "The Sweetest Punch" — is strenuously worked in what amounts to an intellectual substitute for going to the emotional garden and cutting it fresh. Who wants to hang around while every conceivable association is lifted from the thesaurus and laid carefully in place like some lyrical brick path? To cap it, there's the disincentive of Costello's voice, with it's phoney American brogue and harshly ballooning vibrato.

Nostalgia for Dionne and Dusty grows as this album wends on its way. The three stars are for Bacharach for staying true to himself.

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Uncut, No. 18, November 1998

Ian MacDonald reviews Painted From Memory.


1998-11-00 Uncut page 90.jpg
Page scan.

1998-11-00 Uncut cover.jpg


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