Read about a new album from Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello and you can picture the record executives having a field day: the swinging songsmith meets the aging king of punk! Austin Powers plus Sid Vicious! Sex appeal and intellectual cachet! It must be a senseless gimmick just dying for a shot of arch hipness, you can practically assume. Another dud for the remainders bin. Fortunately for us, though, these songwriters have in fact crafted an album that is subtle, passionate and captivating. Pieced together by Bacharach and Costello during spare moments together in hotel suites on rented pianos, the songs on Painted from Memory are as substantial and arresting as any in recent years.
To the uninitiated, this praise may come as a bit of a shock. Warbling through a cameo in kitschy Austin Powers, Burt Bacharach has gained a prominence of late, with ripened sex appeal and flawless lounge credentials. In all the fuss, though, what has been neglected is the mastery of his songwriting, full of curious melodies, startling chord changes and the catchiest hooks this side of Top 40s radio. With lyricist Hal David and vocalist Dionne Warwick, he produced some of the best pop songs of the '60s, at the moment when rock was sending the pure songwriting tradition to its final death throes.
Against the wave, Bacharach wrote a series of urbane pop songs so glamorous and well-arranged it was easy to ignore their startling edges of regret and emotional maturity. Discovering his work last year for the first time, I found myself caught up in the sensitivity of his songs, which could pack an lifetime of hurt into a flip rhyme and an abrupt meter change. Only Bacharach, for instance, could interpose the cheerful mood of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" with its underlying theme of disillusionment and the unspoken death of big dreams; while the arrangement glistens with organ bursts and the light trace of strings, the tragic subtext plays out in throwaway verses and quicksilver harmonic twists. Desolation never sounded so hummable.
Elvis Costello, angry young punk, might seem an odd sort to collaborate with a composer of sugary and sophisticated pop songs. However, his abilities as a songwriter, even in his early and admirable punk work, tended towards surprising revelations and explorations of the dark sides of love and politics; he even cited Bacharach and David as influences on his post-punk swaggering forays into murky emotions. Like Bacharach, Costello composes music that can quiver like shifting sands, leaning gently into a tremor of eloquence and anguish.
Together, they perform beautifully — Costello offers Bacharach his first substantial lyricist and collaborator since Hal David, while Bacharach roots Costello in a sound rich with splendid hooks and lush instrumentation. Costello entirely rises to the challenge of matching the Bacharach melodies with poignant musings on heartbreak, love stories laced with the chill of specific, damning truth. On the outstanding "This House is Empty Now," a moving portrait of a man who cannot make sense of the unreliable memories that inscribe his vacant home, Bacharach and Costello write: "Do you recognize the face fixed in that fine silver frame? / Were you really so unhappy then? You never said." In these final three words, Costello and Bacharach condense the touching inability of the narrator to reconcile his traces of love with the reality of heartbreak. The lyrics convey the narrator's simultaneous rage at his lover's silent suffering and at his own obliviousness. This is the roughness of love: its strange contradictions, its pain and its insensibility. Similarly poignant and delicate expressions distinguish the album as a whole, full of songs about the attempt to reconstruct love from fragments from the past, from dreams and objects — truly, as the album title suggests, painting music out of the haze of memory.
Costello's rich vocal work on the album is hard to describe and perhaps even harder to appreciate. Although he has always possessed one of the great idiosyncratic voices of pop music, his range and abilities as an interpretive singer have grown exponentially on his somewhat alienating experiments of recent years. His work on the songs with Bacharach is ambitious and expressive, informed with emotional truth and an outstanding dynamic range; he soars into high notes with a rough, intense vibrato and settles into bitter moments with deliberate, raw pauses. Opting for broad, naked sentiment over sneaky sweetness, rough around the edges, the album is nothing like it might be if its voice were a more conventional pop singer, but not necessarily worse. While at times, the straining quality of his voice threatens to upstage the songs' subtle sophistication and pop pedigree, the overall effect is to deepen their emotional impact.
Bacharach supports Costello with mostly excellent arrangements which may leave his fans with a sense of deja vu: the twin flugelhorns, the wispy strings, the fuzzy horns, the retro female background singers. Only when Bacharach stretches his orchestrations into more rock-oriented territory does the music suggest outtakes from the schmaltzy Michael MacDonald recordings from the mid-80s. Few of the songs, though, sound so maudlin, and the melodies themselves stay thoroughly grounded in reality; these pop songs may be old-fashioned, but they sound far from melodramatic or artificial. Heartbreak itself, after all, is awfully old-fashioned, but it always feels fresh.
What makes Bacharach and Costello's achievement so remarkable is their articulation of the coexistence of radiant love and its passing. Betrayals and reconciliations, obsessions and evasions coincide in the same words and while a song may express the despair of heartache, the music exposes the allure of it as well. The grief is unbearable but its melody is so sweet, so fragile, Bacharach and Costello seem to wonder who can live without it. Like love itself, of course, no one can. As in these desolate and beautiful stories, Painted from Memory suggests, we too may linger on the comforting ache of love remembered, complicit in our own exquisite misery. Misery, after all, is just another kind of tenderness, only slightly transposed. Cue the strings, the fashionable flugelhorns. I'm with Costello and Bacharach: I'll take the memories.