Two’s Company — Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach: Painted From Memory

Mr Long Chin meet Mr Crap Hat.

THE MOST surprising thing is that it sounds almost exactly as you might imagine. The dramatic opener ‘In The Darkest Place’ ushers in a familiar muted brass and piano, driven by clipped bass and hushed drums. Then, in the centre-stage position where Dusty or Sacha or Dionne once stood, Costello steps up to the microphone, as if the once reluctant new waver had in fact spent the last two decades perfecting his torchsinging for this moment. Indeed Costello’s love of Bacharach’s music was noted — and no doubt ridiculed — by his contemporaries as early as the Stiffs Live package tour in 1977 and no matter how coolly he may appear to take it in his stride, there’s surely a Jim’ll Fix It aspect to all of this. First McCartney, then Burt.

This unlikely collaboration is a result of the pair being brought together (or rather not, since they initially wrote together via fax and telephone) to pen the monumental ‘God Give Me Strength’ for the 1996 Brill Building biopic Grace Of My Heart, one of the more conventional pop compositions offered here. Duly encouraged, the pair decided to take the partnership further, especially as the musicologist elements of Costello’s work would qualify him to cope with the stylistic traits and complex melodic twists and turns that still help make up Bacharach’s approach.

For those attracted to the more kitsch aspects of the 70-year-old Kansas City native’s catalogue, ‘Toledo’ is a worthy addition, with Costello employing certain key lyrical characteristics used by Bacharach’s erstwhile lyricist, the often underrated Hal David: place names feature purely for their romantic ring and an almost magical air of loneliness and longing is conjured up in the showstopping ‘This House Is Empty Now’.

Even if, in parts, the singer is somewhat heavy-handed with the dynamics and vibrato and the seemingly ever-present trio of female backing singers have the emotional depth of Benny Hill’s Ladybirds, the lasting effect is one of studied melodrama at its best. Moreover, it’s utterly convincing. With a gender tweak lyrically, the young Cilla Black might have worked wonders with the explosive chorus of ‘I Still Have That Other Girl’.

In its own way, Painted By Memory will likely prove as challenging as The Juliet Letters to some listeners, while many others willingly surrender to its emotional pull. For Bacharach, it has clearly been an exercise in creative reinvigoration. For Costello, that West End musical or Vegas residency might now only be a matter of time. ****

© Tom DoyleQ, November 1998

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