American composer Burt Bacharach is the smooth, peerless craftsman responsible for a string of pop hits dating back to the '60s.
Elvis Costello is the acerbic British singer-songwriter whose late '70s and early '80s albums marked him as one of the most literate and influential rock writers since Bob Dylan.
They prove inspired collaborators on Painted From Memory. The new album, recorded in Hollywood with a 24-piece orchestra conducted by Bacharach, is a 12-song cycle that explores the melancholy aftermath of love gone wrong. That's much the same territory mined by Costello on his lushly orchestrated Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 album that many consider his best work.
Both artists have catalogues filled with soul-searing ballads exploring the passions and pitfalls of romance, and both know their way around a complex melody line. At one time or another, Bacharach, 70, and Costello, 43, who perform together Thursday at the Warner Theater, each has been dubbed "the Cole Porter of his generation."
As it happens, Elvis Costello had actually recorded a Burt Bacharach song, the plaintive "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," before he recorded his debut album, 1977's My Aim Is True. He also covered Bacharach's "Please Stay" on 1995's Kojak Variety, a collection of songs close to Costello's heart. At that time, Costello was just another longtime Burt Bacharach fan, not a friend or collaborator.
His version of "Please Stay," Costello explains, was learned from British singer Zoot Money's cover of the 1961 Drifters hit. "Now the reason I have that record is that my dad brought it home to learn to sing for the dance band that he had."
Costello's father, Ross MacManus, was the vocalist for the Joe Loss Orchestra, while Costello's mother managed a music store, a circumstance that clearly expanded the youngster's musical horizons.
"A lot of the music that my parents listened to set me up from the very earliest stages to have an appreciation of ballad singing," Costello says. "And my father being a dance-band singer meant he sang a lot more ballads than rock-and-roll, so that was a very natural sound to me all the time I was growing up."
According to Costello, growing up listening to Bacharach songs on the radio made him a fan of pop music long before he knew much about songcraft in general, or Bacharach's gifts specifically.
"Sixties songs like 'Walk On By,' 'I Say a Little Prayer,' 'Alfie' and 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' stuck out even if I couldn't put a name to it because I was too young," Costello says of his preteen years. "I just loved them as pop records. But as I got a little older, I realized that they alluded to quite adult things. Even though the lyrics were universal in their expression and worked as pop lyrics, the music was saying something a little bit different.
"And I realize now that the reason Burt was able to achieve these effects are the same things I've enjoyed in collaborating with him — the very characteristic but never self-conscious use of change of meter, a very distinct sense of melodic shapes, a sense of adventure harmonically and rhythmically."
Costello admits that some of his own early songs — particularly "Accidents Will Happen" and "Just a Memory" — were inspired by Bacharach's sophisticated yet accessible approach to melody. "That's how a lot of good things happen, by striving for something, whether it's a note you're trying to reach, a feeling you're trying to capture or a model you're trying to attain parity with in the style of a song."
By the mid-'80s, when Costello was enjoying his greatest acclaim and commercial success, Bacharach was resting comfortably on his laurels, having crafted 39 Top 40 hits, six of them No. 1s. He would have some major hits in the '80s and early '90s, including Christopher Cross's "Arthur's Theme," Patti LaBelle's "On My Own" and old pal Dionne Warwick's "That's What Friends Are For." But the best work by Bacharach and his most successful lyrical partner, Hal David, had been done in the '60s — far enough in the past to benefit from one of pop music's cyclical revivals.
First came the mid-'90s resurgence of lounge music and easy-listening pop, followed by Bacharach's championing in England by such Britpop bands as Oasis and Blur. He received another boost with the inclusion of a half-dozen of his classics in 1997's hit film My Best Friend's Wedding, and a few more in last year's hit comedy Austin Powers - International Man of Mystery, which featured a genially self-parodying cameo by Bacharach himself.
Bacharach and Costello began collaborating in 1995, brought together through Allison Anders's Grace of My Heart. That film was a transparent homage to Carole King and the Brill Building, the legendary New York hit factory populated by such great songwriting teams as King and Gerry Goffin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and, of course, Bacharach and David. The soundtrack paired some of those Brill Building veterans with next-generation writers, most successfully on the Bacharach-Costello composition "God Give Me Strength."
Surprisingly, the two never met face-to-face while writing that song, performed in the film by Illeana Douglas. Deadline pressures forced them to compose via fax and phone. Costello thinks it may have been better that way.
"I've collaborated with quite a lot of people with differing methods and I have written what I call mail-order songs," Costello says. "And I've written face to face with Paul McCartney, which of course is a daunting and exacting thing as well. But to be corresponding with Burt Bacharach with written music when I'm not a tremendously confident notator of music and he is a completely fluent man on the page — and he's a wonderful pianist and I'm a very rudimentary pianist who uses it as a composing tool — well, you might think I'm working at a disadvantage."
Apparently not: Not only was the aching ballad nominated for a Grammy, but the songwriters finally met when they were asked to perform "God Give Me Strength" for the film's closing credits. And that's where the notion of a more expansive collaboration was initially broached.
Early on, it became apparent that Painted From Memory would be a song cycle about love, and particularly about what one song dubs "the glorious distress" of romantic failure.
"That was the cue we took from 'God Give Me Strength,'" Costello says. "It does get very dark sometimes, but there's always some kind of hope, albeit one that's very qualified like 'My Thief' or 'In the Darkest Place,' where you're waiting in a place where you've been hurt until you recover your strength and you might get back together, maybe you won't."
"It's kind of a sexy place, as well, I must say," Costello adds. "It feels that way. There's something quite illicit about being there, and also the way people enjoy being unhappy sometimes. One of my favorite songs is Richard Rodgers's 'Glad to Be Unhappy' — it's my theme song whenever I walk around in a gloom."
On a happier note, the project offered several firsts: the first time Bacharach has written extensively with another musician, as opposed to a lyricist; and the first time Costello has written extensively at the piano. Costello wrote all the lyrics, with some tweaking by Bacharach, and they shared compositional duties and co-production credits. Bacharach played piano and arranged and conducted the orchestra on all but the title track (which was done by Johnny Mandel).
On this album, Costello's singing is more pronounced than ever before, displaying warmer, richer tones in the lower register and showcasing him as an elegant, albeit tortured, crooner. Costello concedes that some of the melodies push him to the edge of his abilities, "but even if I could sing them without effort, I wouldn't want to.
"I want to reach for the exciting thing in a song, even if it's a little bit beyond reach. That's what you're getting with this collaboration. Not two smooth guys, but one guy who's often read as very slick and smooth, but underneath there's turmoil and a constant flux of music going on; and somebody else who has an appreciation of delicacy and tender stuff but has a voice with edge on it, and that's what I've got."