AFTER 40-PLUS YEARS, one of America’s greatest songwriters finally has something to say. Which is not to suggest that songs like ‘Close to You’ or ‘A House Is Not a Home’ or ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love’ didn’t communicate a great deal. It’s just that their words were lyricist partner Hal David’s, not Burt Bacharach’s.
“This is the first time I took a crack at writing lyrics,” Bacharach tells ICE, by way of explaining At This Time, due November 1 on Columbia, “but I wanted to say what I wanted to say. I’ve never rocked the boat or been political. Years ago, I didn’t vote. I was writing songs during the Vietnam crisis, I wasn’t marching, you know? And you might say, ‘Well, there’s a guy who wrote love songs his whole life. Can he get up and take a stand?’ “
Bacharach certainly takes a stand on At This Time, which could be considered his own personal What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 heartfelt examination of the state of the planet. In doing so, Bacharach enlisted a compelling cast of collaborators — Dr. Dre, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, co-lyricist Tonio K — to craft an altogether unique project.
“When I started this album,” says Bacharach, “I wasn’t very happy with what was going on. Bush had won in 2000 and again in 2004. Now, since I’ve finished the record, so much more has gone wrong, as in Louisiana.”
The initial impetus for At This Time, though, was more musical than political. Three years ago, the songwriter met super-producer Dre, then planning a solo LP, who gave him some drum loops to work with. While he admits “There’s something regimented about four-bar loops,” Bacharach says that, without Dre’s drum and bass lines — and those furnished by Prinz Board and Dre associate Denaun Porter of D12 — “these songs would never have been written.”
Writing melodies to the rhythm beds, Bacharach went to Tonio K (with whom he’d worked on Ronald Isley’s Here I Am) with “what I wanted to say, and we’d refine my lyrics.”
The songs, most cut live, exhibit all the melodic grace one expects from a Burt Bacharach composition, but they ebb and flow, lead vocals gliding in over sinewy loops, then fading as ensemble voices respond in the manner of Greek choruses. “There’s nothing on the album that is a conventional, top-to-bottom song,” he explains. “They’re more like vocal observations, interjections.”
Costello takes the lead on ‘Who Are These People?’, which asks “Who are these people that destroy everything/And sell off the future for whatever it brings?” “We had a great ending for that song,” Bacharach laughs. “At the end, Elvis originally sang ‘We gotta make a change or [imitates Costello] we’re fucked,’ but we changed it.” Strings, electronic piano and synthetic flugelhorn swirl around Wainwright on the not entirely optimistic ‘Go Ask Shakespeare’. Bacharach himself opens the album with “Please Explain” (“There was a song I remember/Said ‘What the world needs now…’ “) and delivers the poignant ‘Where Did It Go?’, which wonders about the world his children, aged nine, 12 and 19, will inhabit.
The rest of the tune stack: ‘In Our Time’ and ‘Dreams’ (both featuring Botti), ‘Is Love Enough?’, ‘Can’t Give It Up’, ‘Danger’, ‘Fade Away’ and the hopeful ‘(Love Is) Always Taking Aim’.
Will the maestro perform At This Time in concert? “Oh yeah,” he answers. “We’ll do it when we go to England. And we’ll probably be playing some of it with the Buffalo Symphony at the end of October. We’ll see if they throw things at me.”
© Gene Sculatti, ICE, November 2005