Listening to the seminal 1978 compilation Stiffs Live, it seemed the height of irony for punk’s angsty young man Elvis Costello to launch into a desperate, aching cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ”I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” But 20 years and myriad musical digressions later, it seems his heart was in the right place after all, as he’s joined forces with Bacharach to create Painted From Memory.
The two songsmiths first teamed up in 1995, when director Allison Anders recruited them to write ”God Give Me Strength,” the signature track for her film Grace of My Heart. The experience stoked a mutual admiration, Bacharach having been wowed by Costello’s 1993 classical undertaking, The Juliet Letters. ”I thought, This is very challenging, this is risk taking,” he recalls. ”Elvis is capable of going in so many different directions. That’s why the marriage of the two of us is not such an incompatible thing. Our strength is in passion and romance. In love.”
In fact, Memory represents an almost overdue convergence, as Costello’s career choices, including forays into C&W, jazz, and film scoring, have seen vibratoed crooning supplant venomous bluster. Costello, 43, describes the two kindred spirits achieving a ”grammar of music” over the 14 months of writing and recording Memory: ”I thought if we could get on a theme of lost love, maybe we could write a coherent record that sustains the mood but still has a lot of musical and emotional variety.” Says Bacharach, 70, ”I wanted material that somebody might like to hear down the line, not just fall in love with for two or three hours and get beaten up by it.”
The problem may be getting the album heard at all. Although the duo have committed to a four-date mini-tour and an appearance on Public Television’s Sessions at West 54th in November, attracting radio play presents a challenge for Memory’s label, Mercury, which must deal with a decidedly non-rock product that defies categorization. Thus, it sees its best marketing shot in adult contemporary and AAA outlets.
”One of the best things we have going for us is that there isn’t another record like this out,” says Bacharach. Costello is less sanguine about its prospects: ”I can’t predict that it will have any presence, because radio’s so heavily formatted, and it may not see itself in these songs. But I believe people will see themselves in these songs, which ultimately is more important.”
Lamenting the mawkish state of much of today’s pop songwriting (he cites the appeal of a certain Titanic Canadian diva), Costello hopes Memory will connect with similarly disenchanted souls: ”There are plenty of people for whom the big emotional ballad is a lost cause who hopefully will dig this.” As for the others, he shrugs, ”If they believe that kind of epic, overwrought stuff is where it’s at, they won’t even recognize this music. And you can’t help them. It’s like the difference between fine silk and polyester.”