Music Feature: A match made in pop heaven

A match made in pop heaven: Costello's words and Bacharach's music were meant to be together


Stephanie Zacharek
October 1, 1998 9:35PM (UTC)

It makes sense that Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach wrote the songs for "Painted From Memory" in bits and pieces over the past two years, getting together whenever they could manage it, sometimes in a New York hotel room outfitted with a rented piano. It sounds as if those makeshift assignations were the best possible way for them to work together, in the
same way that illicit lovers make the best of their time together with feverish secrecy, building something that's gorgeous in its fragility and immediacy even as they're fully aware that heartbreak is, inevitably, just around the corner -- if not already hiding under the bed. "Painted From Memory" is so soft, plush and yielding a record that I wonder if a lot of people won't automatically file it away under Easy Listening. But I don't know what's easy about lines like "If anyone should look into your eyes/It's not forgiveness that they're going to see." Jealousy, obsessive longing, the desolation that stares back at you from the bottom of the empty vodka
glass -- all of those classic themes are here, wrapped up in pastel cashmere melodies whose complexity doesn't hit you until you've fallen hard for their hooks. "Painted From Memory" is the perfect record about heartbreak, because instead of succumbing to simple mopery, it captures heartbreak's complex allure: There's some glamour in it, too, amid the tears.

Of course, the glamour of heartbreak is a pretty big selling point these days, and there's no doubt that Mercury, Costello's new label, is hoping "Painted From Memory" will hit it big with the young hipsters who've recently fallen so hard for '60s lounge pop. Bacharach, especially after his "Austin Powers" cameo, is a hot property, and if it's wonderful that his music -- some of it the
very best pop of the '60s -- is reaching a new, younger audience, it's also a little painful to see him treated as an object of kitsch, the musical equivalent of shag carpeting or those egg-shaped pedestal chairs.

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It's even more painful, though, to see Costello being hung out to dry, as if he could use a little boost from a big shot like Bacharach. In his review of "Painted From Memory" in Rolling Stone, Greg Kot says that Costello "has seen his chic factor drop to less than zero in recent years, in part because he keeps fluttering from genre to genre." For people who care more about image than actual music -- and for people who've turned their glorious punk youth into a relic along the lines of Miss Havisham's wedding cake -- those words may actually mean something. For anybody who has ears to listen, though, it's blindingly apparent that Costello is only just now reaching his peak as a singer. For phrasing and expressiveness (as well as, increasingly, for tonal quality), there's no singer in contemporary pop music who can touch him.

It seems like a small miracle that Costello and Bacharach, two extraordinary songwriters, have finally gotten together, but the even bigger treat is that we get to hear Costello's interpretation of songs that bear a definite Bacharach stamp. Costello wrote the words to all of the songs here, and if they're less brainy and playful than his trademark lyrics, they're also less dense. Their
aerated quality gives Costello more open spaces to play with as a vocalist. And the melodies themselves, written by Costello and Bacharach together, are captivating. It's not always easy to identify particular songs as being "more Costello" or "more Bacharach," especially since both have always shown a fondness for gently surprising melodic structures that bend and twist with the suppleness of vines (and since Costello has always cited Bacharach as an influence anyway). But "Painted From Memory" has that classic, undeniably Bacharach sound: With the exception of the title track, arranged by Johnny Mandel, all the orchestration is his. The songs sound both modern and weirdly timeless, especially if you grew up hearing (and loving) Bacharach's songs on the radio. Deceptively simple piano motifs define the melodies without spelling out every nuance; strings swell and retreat like softly painted floating backdrops; horn lines pop out in relief, but
their edges are soft, chalk-smudged; for better or worse (and sometimes, clearly, for worse), diaphanous retro-girlie backup vocals drift in like ghosts finally freed from their prison of busted-up, long-forgotten transistor radios.

But if it's Bacharach who sets the record's tone, it's Costello who keeps it from being just a nostalgia trip. "This House Is Empty Now" could be a bookend for the Bacharach-Hal David hit "A House Is Not a Home," but if the two share the same theme (the idea of a house -- and a heart -- as an empty shell), Costello undercuts some of the older song's overwrought melodrama. "Do you recognize the face fixed in that fine silver frame?/Were you really so unhappy then? You never said," he sings, the clipped rhythm of those last three words like a sucker punch, as if the
possibility that his partner could love him so little is only just now hitting him.

The sentiment -- if not the actual wording -- of most of these songs is too corrosive to be simple nostalgic retrolounge stuff. In "Toledo," the album's most striking song, a man returns from a secret tryst to find the message light blinking on his answering machine. He knows it's his longtime lover, and he knows she knows where he's been. "It's no use saying that I love
you/and how that girl really didn't mean a thing to me," he begins to say, a rationalization he seems to be working out for himself even as we're hearing it. The lyrics stretch across musical phrases like a curvy Japanese footbridge, the kind that demands that small, careful steps be taken. But the song's most exotic turn comes in the chorus. The subject is changed quickly,
in a seeming non sequitur, like an unfaithful lover's nervous dodge: "But do people living in Toledo know that their name hasn't traveled very well?/And does anybody in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?" The lines are puzzling at first, until you realize that they're not meant as a dig at Ohioans, but as an almost subconscious musing on the way people, willfully or otherwise, forget the origins of things. Place names are borrowed, adopted -- they become so familiar that we forget to consider what they stand for in and of themselves. Isn't it all too easy to do the same thing with lovers?

Unfortunately, there are times on "Painted From Memory" when subtlety is all but smothered. The arrangements, by and large, are lovely, but occasionally there's a puzzling misstep. Sometimes the female backing vocals just sound too campy, and the LP's first single, "The Long Division," features an overly slick electronic keyboard riff that sounds like something from an old Lou Rawls record.

But even though "Painted From Memory" is clearly going to be marketed to the adult-contemporary audience, it's important to make the distinction between adult-contemporary and simply adult. To look at "Painted From Memory" as evidence of Costello's "settling down" into maturity (and respectability) is simply the flip side of the handy insult parents sometimes
fling at teenagers: "You're young, you'll get over it." No less insulting is the assumption that adult feelings are less genuine -- or intrinsically less "interesting" -- than what we felt when we were young and completely messed up. In the staggering ballad "My Thief," Costello sings from the
point of view of a man whose lost lover keeps breaking into his dreams. He begs her to stop, and yet he knows he couldn't bear it if she did. There's an obsessive intensity, and a tenderness, to the song that Costello couldn't have nailed as well 20 or even 10 years ago. And on "In the Darkest Place," his voice is lush and velvety, like a tiger's flank. There's something both
finely controlled and untamable about it -- Costello isn't the pussycat he's been made out to be.

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To many of us who were kids in the '60s, Bacharach's songs -- polished and seductive on the surface, but with melodic complexities we might not have comprehended at the time -- were like an entree into adulthood. Bacharach made being a grown-up seem easy, appealing, the happening place to be. But in retrospect, the sophistication of his melodies also seems like an admission that life doesn't necessarily get any easier to comprehend as you get older, a metaphor for the curveballs that were bound to come our way just as we were sure we had everything figured out. "Painted From Memory," a record made by a former angry young man and a man whose '60s pop hits represented the ultimate in urbane coolness, is a gorgeous record, but not necessarily a soothing one. There's an undercurrent of unrest rushing beneath the surface, a defiant rejection of the numbness so many people mistake for maturity. And if the essence of punk is a refusal to let life slide by unexamined, a vow to feel rage or frustration or boredom or heartbreak full-tilt, then "Painted From Memory" is a subversively punk record. Anyone who had a heart would know.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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