Burt Bacharach: The Look Of Love

Three-CD box packing 75 examples of highly-crafted pop magic and spanning four decades. The gang’s all here — Dionne, Dusty, Cilla — with only Aretha’s little prayer conspicuously in absentia.

Hot on the heels of Painted From Memory — an album as much about Burt Bacharach as by him, methinks — L.A.’s ever-exhaustive Rhino label has at last assembled a definitive collection of the MOR-pop god’s greatest moments. What joy finally to have a Best o’ Burt that doesn’t simply round up all the usual suspects but has room to accommodate an abundance of discarded treasures.

Elvis Costello’s collaboration with, and championing of, Bacharach is not just timely but indicative of a generally enhanced perception of the man’s achievements. Like all Burt’s true fans, Costello has had enough of Bacharach being patronised as the Godfather of the Bachelor-Pad set. True, there are more than a few loungecore moments on The Look Of Love, a three-CD box intermittently sprinkled with yuk like Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue On Blue’ and Paul Anka’s ‘Me Japanese Boy I Love You’. But anyone who can’t hear past the cocktail-piano kitsch to what Costello accurately calls Bacharach’s “sense of darkness” and “romantic doubt” surely has cloth ears.

Here’s the point. As the missing link between Rodgers & Hart and Lennon & McCartney, Bacharach and his lyrical mainman Hal David transcended the conventions of Teen Pan Alley so effortlessly that their cool, neoclassical peaks — ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’, ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, and on and on and on — tower over even the best songs of Pomus & Shuman, Goffin & King, Mann & Weil. Only Leiber & Stoller, whose work lay almost entirely outside the pop-ballad realm anyway, are fit to stand alongside them.

A prodigy turned on as a child by Ravel, Burt Bacharach did things with chords and time signatures that nobody else working in pop has even attempted. Think of the sudden key change in the middle of ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’ — “In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star” — and ask yourself which other pop/rock tunesmith (unless it’s a Burt fiend like Jimmy Webb or Thom Bell or Arthur Lee) would even contemplate it.

Here’s another amazing thing: a 34-year-old veteran of the cabaret circuit — working at the time as a conductor-accompanist to Marlene Dietrich — suddenly, in the early ’60s, begins writing complex ballads for black singers like Jerry Butler, Chuck Jackson and Lou Johnson, polished baritones who can handle the long legato phrases he hears in his head and hence rise to the challenge of his always unpredictable melodic twists. Is there any more perfect pop-soul record than the unsung Johnson’s original 1964 version of ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’, a 45 whose considerable thunder was undeservedly stolen by that shoeless Shaw creature?

After the uptown soul men came the incredible diva — La Warwick. Just as Bacharachian balladry was the polar opposite of Spectoresque pomp, so Warwick’s cerebral soprano defused the deep-soul sobbing of so many ’60s sirens. Not for her the overheated melisma of gospel, even if she was steeped in the stuff. She knew Bacharach’s music lay in an uncharted land separating Carole King from Stephen Sondheim, which is why so many Burt/Dionne jewels (‘Alfie’, ‘Here I Am’) sound more like songs from great musicals than hits you’d have expected to hear on mid-’60s AM radio. (Among the very welcome semi-obscurities that makes The Look Of Love a mandatory purchase are several forgotten Warwick masterpieces: the majestic album cut ‘In Between The Heartaches’, the retake of The Drifters’ ‘In The Land Of Make Believe’, a little miracle from 1972 called ‘The Balance Of Nature’.)

Aside from Warwick, the box gives us Dusty’s husky, Jobim-infused ‘Look Of Love’, Cilla’s histrionic but irresistible Alfie, and the Carpenters’ velveteen ‘Close To You’. Even when the voices are blanched and the melodies a touch trite — Jackie de Shannon’s ‘What the World Needs Now’, BJ Thomas’ ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Heard’ — we are talking pure pop perfection. Stretching that argument to the limit are Burt’s own recordings, rendered in what he himself called his “earnest, rumpled baritone”. Best of these by far is the 1971 album track ‘Hasbrook Heights’, a jauntily ironic hymn to American suburbia.

It is customary to write off Bacharach’s work of the late ’70s and ’80s. The Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald hit ‘On My Own’ is routinely dismissed as glutinous LA soul, whereas it is actually a peerless duet that more than redeems the slush of ‘Arthur’s Theme’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’. As for present-day Burt, one can only hear the closing ‘God Give Me Strength’ as one of the greatest things either he or Elvis Costello has ever done.

Boasting a fine essay by MOJO contributor Bill de Main and garnished with thorough notes on the individual tracks by Alec Cumming, The Look of Love is just about the best tribute imaginable to a pop giant of Bacharach’s stature. Time, then, to say a little prayer of thanks — make that a massive prayer of thanks — that the bloke was ever born.

© Barney HoskynsMOJO, December 1997

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