In the current view, Burt Bacharach is a kind of silver-haired lava lamp, a symbol for a glorious era, unspecified and unblemished, that Americans love to see as their past. Filmmakers have exploited these associations, knowing that in its language, to say nothing of its lilt, “I Say a Little Prayer” evokes innocence in seconds. With Painted From Memory, Elvis Costello wants to save Bacharach from Hollywood directors, cocktail sybarites, and lounge ironists, yank him from the “land of exotica” foretold on Elvis’s “Pidgin English,” remind us of what he has called the music’s “real substance,” and give Bacharach a more challenging autumn than writing “That’s What Psychic Friends Are For” jingles for Dionne Warwick. Awfully quixotic, for such a supposed cynic.
Like lots of people younger than Costello, I grew up with Bacharach in the background: pop hits on the radio and show tunes on my parents’ hi-fi. The notes in The Look Of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-CD box coming from Rhino Records in early November, detail his comprehensive schooling: he studied with avant-classicist Henry Cowell, adored bebop as America’s original “new music,” heard Brazilian bossa nova while touring as Marlene Dietrich’s musical director, and disliked rock’n’roll (“no major sevenths”). As a Brill Building writer, he was a late-’50s oddity, the only one not rooted in r&b, and he meticulously layered asymmetries of melody, harmony, and rhythm into the Top 40. Yet today, critics still describe his music as “easy-listening.”
So Elvis hasn’t entirely repositioned Bacharach, which isn’t surprising since most critics are younger than Costello, too. As was most of the crowd when the duo played Radio City Music Hall on October 13, almost 20 years to the day since Costello recorded Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (along with “Radio Radio”) for his third John Peel session. It was like a meeting of the Aging Hipsters Society, rows of $75 seats filled by career-oriented new wavers, now sought by sponsor Mercedes-Benz. Elvis got an ovation just for walking on in a tuxedo and bringing to life the inner sleeve of Trust, but, to my ears, the biggest cheers came after he mentioned the Attractions; when Bacharach led two medleys of his hits, the crowd was patient, but merely polite, with a few nervous giggles for the Hollywood novelty “Liberty Valance.” This was an audience willing to acknowledge Burt’s substance mostly because of Elvis’s reliable imprimatur. Otherwise, for them, the Bacharach medleys were just useless beauty.
The show began with Costello’s voice, unaccompanied, singing a bit of Burt’s “Baby It’s You” before the curtain rose, and ended as he held a long note on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” They were apt bookends–opinions on Painted From Memory divide on opinions of Costello’s singing; enthusiasts invoke Frank Sinatra, opponents cite Harpo Marx. Some Elvis fans trace the increasing stylization of his singing to the asymmetries of Imperial Bedroom (which in 1982 sounded insane, and now sounds like a rock quartet trying to recreate a full Bacharach orchestra, and ending up insane), or as far back as Armed Forces. His voice grew more detailed and active, but less effective than when he declared “I’m not angry anymore” with manifest anger. By Spike, for sure, his voice was as mannered as Letitia Baldridge.
Painted From Memory invents the music Costello’s voice has been imagining for years. Graceful and steady, less worldly than Bacharach’s ’60s glory, as perfectly plucked as a starlet’s eyebrows, this is L.A. torch pop, even if it was recorded partly in New York, the lush codas so sleekly laced with minor-seventh chords you can hear Prefab Sprout weeping jealously across the ocean. Refrains from a female trio on “Tears at the Birthday Party” and electric piano chords atop “Such Unlikely Lovers” recall the Steely Dan of Aja and Gaucho, but lack that music’s ego, or commitment to vapidity and Cuervo Gold, coming closer to the jazzy studio rock of the late-’70s, Michael McDonald, say, maybe Robbie Dupree, or Allen Toussaint. Costello focuses on the “glorious distress” of heartache, and runs an elemental dark/light theme through his lyrics, as lonely men sit in shuttered rooms, too obsessed to even venture out for a bottle, and jealously imagine new lives for their vanished lovers.
Bacharach’s songs, as Elvis understands, were underestimated because of their graceful surface–the defining Bacharach song, Warwick’s “Walk On By,” even declares emotional disguise to be its topic. So Costello changes the surface; where Warwick sought to hide hurt with even, legato phrases, he exaggerates it, adding gravitas and travail. “Does the extinguished candle care . . . about the darkness?” Costello asks, in his most fanciful vocal flight, on the divinely beautiful “This House Is Empty Now,” just before Aja guitarist Dean Parks rolls up in his Mercedes to solo.
“That is the torch I bear,” Costello hints in the first song, “In the Darkest Place.” To aging new wavers who haven’t followed him beyond rock, and for whom torch is torture, his singing must feel like a betrayal. But I think the divide over his voice has a subtler basis: a natural baritone, Costello deploys a slow vibrato sob at the feminine top of his range, where he has to strain vulnerably for notes. This trick doubles the lyrical theme, saturates the line with emotion–it’s embarrassment for the singer that causes people to turn away. Like heavy cream, this music isn’t easily digested.
Even on his worst records, Costello has firmly executed his concepts. On Painted From Memory, he boldly convokes the kind of music his fans likely rejected when they bought This Years Model and My Aim Is True, and with characteristic dread, makes comfort feel like a deadly trap. With six marriages between them, Bacharach and Costello summon their memories of the heart’s coma, the night that feels endless. The singer in “This House Is Empty” sits in a leather chair so plushly comfortable, he might never get up.