Painted From Memory
It may be nowhere near as terrifying as the thought of a comeback duet by Vanilla Ice and Snow, but a combo platter of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach still isn’t particularly enticing. Both men had a long stretch of uninterrupted speed-racer creativity that came to a screeching halt. The iffy nature of a collaboration was only reinforced by their first joint effort, ”God Give Me Strength,” from the soundtrack to 1996’s Grace of My Heart. The orchestration, which went down like warm lemon meringue, was vintage Burt, but the song was half-formed, and only once, when Costello reached for a falsetto, did the hinted-at magic materialize.
A full album of Costello-Bacharach songs, therefore, hardly carried a no-risk guarantee. But neither their checkered histories nor that initial duet are preparation for the sublime and subtle beauty of much of Painted From Memory. Ignoring his MOR period in the ’80s, Bacharach picks up where he left off in the late ’60s. Once again we hear candlelight strings, gossamer female backup choirs, crisp acoustic piano, arrangements that build to oceanic swells, and chirpy, muted trumpets. Not to mention clever touches: In ”The Sweetest Punch,” Costello sings, ”It was the sweetest punch/The bell goes” — and he’s answered by, what else, ringing bells.
None of this is anywhere near as hokey as it could have been, just as Costello is nowhere near as caustic as he has been. He’s dumped the tangled, often snide metaphors for the most straightforward set of romantic-heartbreak sentiments he’s ever penned: forthright images of empty rooms, unheeded blinking lights on answering machines, sunny-day strolls that turn dark at the sight of young lovers. ”Tears at the Birthday Party,” with its portrait of a former lover celebrating with her new partner, ”unwrapping presents that I should have sent,” is worthy of a country song. Other longstanding Nashville themes — losing one’s great love, or cheating on that person and enduring the consequences — are married to the sweeping balladry of ”I Still Have That Other Girl” and the skipping-stone bounce of ”Toledo.”
That said, those pleasures don’t come easily. With his rock phrasing, his emphasis on naked emotion over technical skills, Costello is often no match for the urbane music. As much as he wants to be a cabaret crooner, his vocal gargle won’t allow it. He isn’t helped by Bacharach either, whose melodies tend to slowly wend their way toward choruses. You can practically hear Costello’s throat muscles strain as he navigates Bacharach’s follow-the-bouncing-sandbag melodies on ”In the Darkest Place.” Overall, Costello squeaks by. But during its soggy-cereal moments in its second half, Painted From Memory is the antithesis of Bacharach and Costello’s goal — it’s uneasy-listening pop.
Then again, is it pop anymore? In the decades since Bacharach’s heyday, Top 40 songwriting has grown less ambitious. Even when modern pop does aim for the melodic refinement and lyrical grace of Bacharach’s (and his collaborator Hal David’s) level, it teeters on kitsch. All of which lends Painted From Memory an otherworldly ambiance. The album is the first result of Costello’s new contract with Polygram Classics & Jazz and Mercury Records, which will allow him to make both rock and classical discs. Technically, Painted From Memory falls into the former category, but its studied, painstakingly crafted elegance feels more like the latter. It doesn’t just recall Costello and Bacharach’s potential. It’s also a melancholy reminder of a time when pop songcraft stood on the brink of a new era, only to slip away. B+