Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach: Painted From Memory

Two years in the making, the full-on follow-up to ‘God Give Me Strength’, their collaboration from the soundtrack to Grace Of My Heart.

THE TITLE of this marvellous collaboration by two pop music icons could not be better chosen. For the music contained within it seems strangely and soothingly familiar — evoking another time, but sounding less a replication than a continuation of a style, one often emulated but never successfully duplicated. And the lyrics — most of them dealing with lost love, broken relationships, happy days long gone or missed opportunities — dwell almost gleefully in the past. Yet rather than a look backward, Painted From Memory is thrilling evidence that the artful pop song — simple, subtle or, preferably, both — still has a glorious future. It is as masterful as its makers.

Since the days Elvis Costello took to singing ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, his affection for the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songbook has been a matter of record. It has coloured his style occasionally, often to great benefit. If the melodies of Imperial Bedroom lacked Bacharach’s trademark melodic syncopation, its lyrics still bore the sophisticated-lover stamp of a writer once struck by Hal David’s vivid “wake up/make-up” couplet in ‘I Say A Little Prayer’. Such little touches of lyrical reality — of the ’60s swinger taking out his little red book, of someone asking the route to San Jose — combined with Bacharach’s enormous melodic gift to form perfect little jewels of pop music that have yet to be equalled and continue to be appreciated 30 years on.

In the intervening years, white Costello’s career was blossoming in the ’70s and ’80s, Bacharach’s pop touch seemed to slide away into a morass of sickly-sweet, MOR concoctions that won awards, made oodles of money, and — on the hipness scale — seemed diametrically opposed to the works that preceded them. ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ may be the best known; longtime lyricist David had by then departed, and Bacharach’s then-wife Carole Bayer Sager simply wasn’t in his league. But to ascribe any artistic decline to the presence of a particular lyricist would be missing part of the point. Bacharach’s work had smoothed out, become less herky-jerky and hook-filled; further, the stunning array of distinctive vocalists that sang his best-known songs had been replaced by a puzzling squad of silky snoozers. Consider: from Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, The Walker Brothers, Sandie Shaw, Gene Pitney, Tom Jones, even Arthur Lee to Christopher Cross, James Ingram, Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald, Jeffrey Osborne and Tevin Campbell. The mind boggled and, er, the organs grew flaccid.

While Costello’s work has shown no similar decline, it became apparent around the time of The Juliet Letters, his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, that the singer’s artistic ambitions were growing and that boredom with the album/tour record industry life-cycle might be setting in. It is an interesting place for a talented artist to find himself; few performers have attempted to liven up their careers as ambitiously, or as admirably, as has Costello. That said, is it any wonder his previous collaboration with Bacharach — ‘God Give Me Strength’ from Allison Anders’s film ‘Grace Of My Heart’ — seemed just another temporary stop along the way? It was moving, it was masterful, and it seemed — just slightly, but it did, really — an attempt to evoke an era, rather than the opening shot in a partnership that would ultimately prove so bountiful.

I count four major reasons why this album works so wonderfully. First, the music itself: Bacharach’s individual stamp, the syncopated time signatures, the leaping melodies have returned in full glory, and they are a joy to hear. Second, the arrangements: Bacharach’s own piano, and a rhythm section including drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Greg Cohen, guitarist Dean Parks, and keyboardist Steve Nieve, are joined by a 24-piece string section and brass and woodwinds; the sound is full, lush but never sugary, and meticulously precise. Little things that pop out — a female chorus singing only “Try to find another lover” on ‘In The Darkest Place’, for instance — eventually stun you with the perfection and precision of their placement. Steely Dan, of all people, are oddly evoked.

Third, Elvis Costello has never sung better in his life. Unlike the latter-day squad of Bacharach singers, Elvis’s voice oozes with character, passion and subtlety, as did that of so many of the earlier, better vocal interpreters like Springfield, Shaw and Warwick. There is drama in these songs, and Costello focuses on it more grippingly than James Ingram — a perfectly fine singer, mind you — might ever be able.

And, finally, there are the lyrics, which stand among Costello’s best. They are also focused — in this case on a mood very much like that of ‘God Give Me Strength’, which appears here as the album’s closer. “It’s a sad song which didn’t have a defeated frame of mind,” Costello says of that track, pinpointing it perfectly, “where you halfway enjoy being sad, and halfway use it to go to some other place.” Heard in sequence, the first six tracks on Painted From Memory are as perfect as modern pop music ever gets, combining mood, melancholy and imagery (‘Tears At The Birthday Party’) at a level so mature and sophisticated, one can only listen in open-mouthed wonder.

What’s new, pussycat? This is.

Dave DiMartino meets Elvis’n’Burt.

How different was the making of this album from your collaboration on ‘God Give Me Strength’?

Elvis Costello: “For me I think the major difference was that it was nerve-wracking to send that first bit of music down the fax. When I called Burt with an idea, one bit of ‘God Give Me Strength’ — I think the title was there already with a bit of melody and a couple of lines — I sent a tape of it. And I called him up and thought maybe I could talk him through it and play it over the phone — because we really had a deadline — and he wasn’t in. So I played it into the answering machine, just like in that film Swingers, that scene where the guy keeps leaving messages. It’s very different, because I don’t collaborate that often — and imagine the daunting nature of playing it for somebody you realty admire, and you can’t look in their eye and see their reaction. We managed to write a good song anyway.”

Burt Bacaharach: “The big difference here is that we know each other — how it feels, how our temperaments are, how sensitive Elvis is if I make a change or suggest something — or how not sensitive. We don’t have any defences up. I think we fight for what we believe in — and that comes from not doing it over the phone.”

Where were the areas where you would naturally defer to the other guy?

BB: “The lyric thing — I just think Elvis is one of the great, great lyric writers of all time — a very unique voice. Most of our discussions did not deal with words because that was a given. There was just some beautiful stuff coming in.”

EC: “It was an amazing disciplining experience to write in response. Sometimes the character of the music would immediately imply a story or some sort of notion. And then I would take back a rough sketch — sometimes Burt would say, ‘Well, you’ve misread this’ — I do pick things up aurally faster than [written notation]. Sometimes I would write a word that fit my conception of the phrase, and Burt would point out that it actually added a note. Or that there was a pick-up note where there shouldn’t be, or some little detail like that, which would require me to find different words to say the something. But that wasn’t a bad thing, because overall I got more disciplined.”

Did you expect certain stylistic things from each other?

BB: “I knew it wasn’t going to be rock’n’roll.”

EC: “I knew that right from the offing. That wouldn’t have worked.”

BB: “I wouldn’t know how to function in that language.”

EC: “I think if you went through the songs, you’d be very surprised who wrote certain lines, or initially — because after a while you tend to forget, and then they get blurred. There are some songs which are wholly Burt’s — he wrote such a large proportion, and maybe one or two suggestions from me, but minute ones. And there are some which the initial musical intonation, the bulk of the theme might be mine, but it’s gone from a transformation of working on it together, and stretching a bar here or re-voicing a harmony, so it’s no longer as I would’ve originally imagined it, but it’s much stronger for half the work we’ve done on it. And in some cases, it was originally bar by bar, we had a good bit and we have to get to this bit, how are we gonna get there? And we auditioned different solutions sitting at two pianos and working side by side.”

If Burt made a suggestion, would you have a tendency to defer to him?

EC: “No, you know what I learned was that I think we were very good at criticising, in a creative way, each other’s suggestions. But to never jump to conclusions. The real clue is to listen.”

BB: “The general rule was not to please each other, not to agree to something that you don’t really feel. You’d get a very watered-down type of thing. We listened to each other, you know? It’s not I won some points, Elvis won some. Because I think we’re both coming from the same kind of vocation. Whatever our music language is, our background, we’re trying to make a beautiful body of music.”

Burt — you’ve got such a reputation, and you’ve written so many classic songs, do you feel that you’re expected to be ‘Burt Bacharach’ on demand? Do you find people wanting stuff from you that you stopped writing years ago, stylistic things, time changes, moods, etc? How do you deal with it?

BB: “I think it’s easier for me to choose what I want and don’t want to do. Say no to people. I’m not as hard on myself as I used to be — I’m hard on myself-maybe it’s become a recognition that I’m gonna get as close to 100 per cent as I can. It’s easier to let a song go now. I think Elvis and I are very much alike, quite tenacious, as far as wanting to do our very best.”

Elvis, how did working with Paul McCartney compare to this?

EC: “One thing Burt and Paul share is an absolutely clear focus on melodic shape. That’s the only thing I’d say they really share, apart from being talented. My first experience with somebody being really exact about melodic shape was Paul, and because it was all sort of just sung into the air and caught on tape, there was a tendency then to negotiate little agreements sometime. But when Burt and I got together, it was all written down —there was no getting away from it! (Laughs) And I learned in a very short period of time to trust [what was written]. I mean, I think I can write some pretty good melodies, but the sense of what you might be giving up two bars later if you cheat this bar here in some way — if you try to cheat what you’ve established as the shape — you’re gonna lose an effect round the corner. Once you’ve got that musical text, the music still happens in the moment, doesn’t it? It just becomes a much clearer thought. You have this amount of time to say what you want and you’ve got to say it in a clear but individual way. Clear enough to be understood, individual enough so that it isn’t cliche.”

Do either of you find yourselves deliberately reacting against certain aspects of your past styles?

BB: “I think if you asked me to sit down and write a song like some of Dionne’s early records — I don’t know, the times have changed. Jerry Leiber was saying one night that if he had to do it again, he couldn’t do it. That was a different time in your life. That fit at the time.”

EC: “You wouldn’t want to live your life over again, doing the same stuff again, but it’s still great to love the thing. When we did the TNT television special (Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night), we did God Give Me Strength and This House Is Empty. That was a nerve-wracking thing — because every other song was this big, famous song, and here we are doing new ones. But then you see how intimidating it is, even for very good modem singers, to take on these things. It was a big compliment to Dionne and Dusty and people like that, who did the great versions of those songs — which are physically difficult to sing — and
not give the appearance of it being difficult.”

If there’s one thing you want people to get from this record, what would that be?

EC: “I just want people to like it — because it’s all for real.”

BB: “To get caught up in it.”

EC: “You have to get in and listen and feel what’s going on.”

BB: “Because there’s stuff in there.”

EC: “It would be terrible to do a record, and put a lot into it and like it, and feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard that.’ For me, I’ve tended to want to put so much into records sometimes I realise that to enjoy it requires you to become me. And believe me, you don’t want to do that.”

© Dave DiMartinoMOJO, October 1998

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