These fucking old people today, they’re never satisfied. Do Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond, two of 20th-century pop’s most prolific and distinctive songmen, even know how good they’ve got it? Bacharach’s deep-pile catalog continues to inspire reminiscences of an imagined mid-’60s utopia; Diamond remains a live draw on a par with Dave Matthews and Kenny Chesney. Yet here’s Burt with At This Time, the 77-year-old easy-listening master’s first solo album in a quarter-century, on which he has the audacity to both commission drum loops from Dr. Dre and voice his discontent with the war in Iraq. Pretty ungrateful for a guy who could be on a prescription-drug bus to Canada.
As it happens, At This Time won’t start any fires under Cindy Sheehan’s ass. “Where are the dreams that we once knew?” Bacharach wonders in the opener, “Please Explain,” flashing back to that imagined utopia as if he hasn’t been here all along. Later, Elvis Costello wonders, “Who are these people that keep telling us lies?”—pretty weak Bush bait, compared to Kanye West’s or System of a Down’s. Of course, there’s a reason Hal David (supplanted here by Tonio K.) was born; Bacharach secured his pension by plucking heartstrings with melody and tickling brains with harmony. As pure sound, At This Time is engaging, arresting even: “Please Explain” layers shoop-shoop backing vox over Mike Elizondo’s pimp-stroll bass; “Fade Away” has lush Stephen Sondheim strings; “Is Love Enough?” soups up fireside guitar plucking with Dre’s G-ride menace.
Diamond’s Dr. Dre is Rick Rubin, who a decade ago served as Johnny Cash’s Mike Elizondo (or something). In the liners to 12 Songs, an American Recordings–style roots retrenchment, Diamond writes of “coaxing scared CNN viewers away from their TVs . . . to enjoy some live music.” Again we’re in Hollywood-liberal territory, though Diamond’s dissatisfaction resounds more clearly than Bacharach’s; as with Burt, it’s truth Neil is after, a thirst Rubin reflects with good ol’ showbiz razzmatazz. (No one with an honest desire to make a stripped-down acoustic record hires Beck’s pal Smokey Hormel or a dude proficient on the Chamberlin.)
The most badass cut on a record full of ’em is “I’m On to You,” where Diamond warns his subject to “lie no more” atop film-noir horns arranged by Beck’s dad. And if I like to hear “Man of God” as a devilish Dubya satire? Hey, I’m 27; I’ve earned it.