Friday, September 29, 2023

Flashback, September 1998: Costello, Bacharach Release Searing Songs of Heartbreak

Twenty-five years ago this month, two songwriters who few could have predicted, two decades before, would ever collaborate released Painted From Memory, a CD that won a Grammy and recharged their creative energy. 

The album yielded a dozen tightly crafted pop songs and considerable creative satisfaction for Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. If their artistic union went swimmingly, the same could hardly be said of the romantic betrayal, pain, hurt, and regret present on every song in this collection, courtesy of this unlikely duo’s relationships with the six wives they had already had to this point. 

Understandably, Costello has made no bones about these songs being “excessively personal.”

When Costello burst on the music scene in the late 1970s, he quickly gained a reputation for rapid-fire, blistering tunes that matched his reputation at the time as a surly young new wave artist. In the same period, Bacharach found himself experiencing a case of the middle-aged crazies, having split from his second wife, actress Angie Dickinson, and his longtime lyricist, Hal David.

Twenty years later, they were in different places, musically and mentally. Costello had gained a well-deserved reputation for being among the most versatile and musically adventurous musicians of his generation, collaborating with country, jazz, hip-hop, classical music, and R&B artists. Bacharach was seeing something of a career revival, with his songs from three decades before receiving renewed exposure in film hits like My Best Friend’s Wedding and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

Costello had long been a fan of Bacharach, more than 25 years his senior, and had even played “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” early on in concert. He finally met Bacharach in 1989 when the two recorded at the same studio.

But what brought the pair together to work was the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, set in the Brill Building songwriting factory of the late Fifties and early Sixties—an environment that had bred, among others, Bacharach and David.

Bacharach had already been engaged to write the music for the song intended for the movie’s Carole King-like protagonist when Costello came on board to write the lyrics. They worked long distance, exchanging lyrics and arrangements via fax.

The result, “God Give Me Strength” (featuring the voice of Kristen Vigard but lip-synched by Illeana Douglas), was a distinct high point in the movie. Thankfully, it didn’t stop there.

As Costello noted in his 2015 memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, “To have written a song like ‘God Give Me Strength’ and simply stopped would have been ridiculous, so about a year later we began a series of writing sessions, the first at Burt’s work studio near Santa Monica and later in a hotel suite on Park Avenue… One of us would lead the way with an opening statement, perhaps a verse or even all the way through a refrain, and the other would naturally follow with an ever more elaborate bridge of resolution, but as the exchange of ideas got faster and faster, we found ourselves completing each other’s musical sentences at the piano.”

If two words could summarize the creative fusion between the two, it would be “painstaking” and “accommodation.”

The two song craftsmen were used to creating the most intricate examples of their specialties: Costello, twisty lyrics spitting out satire, sarcasm, and wordplay; Bacharach, irresistible hooks that masked complicated arrangements filled with changing time signatures and irregular phrasing, all somehow refined from his classical music training and love of bebop.

In Bacharach, Costello found a master of the studio whose compositions were so complex that they required musicians who could meet his exacting standards. On the other hand, he had to find a way to place his own words naturally into this sumptuous sound.

As he told Chris Willman in a March interview for Variety Magazine, his first thought was: “‘How am I ever gonna make sense with something so, so, so spaced out?’… So this was more of a challenge for me, to make those words really land on the (minimal beats), and have it still make sense and have it still sound like me. It took a bit of puzzling.”

At the same time, the relationship agonies expressed in the songs required Costello to convey a naked, soul-baring emotion he had rarely had to summon to date. Each song, after all, was a character study in which a complex character ranged across betrayal, being cuckolded, feeble self-justification, self-recrimination, hatred and heartbreak.

And here’s the thing: beneath its shimmering orchestral pop surface, replete with tinkling piano, French horn, and muted strings, the lyrics did not deviate in the slightest from the CD’s first note to last. The first song is not titled “In the Darkest Place” for nothing—not with Costello singing, “I'm lost, I have abandoned every hope.”

Costello and Bacharach chose the song that brought them together, “God Give Me Strength,” to close out their CD. But if the protagonist has chosen to reach out past himself, it’s because he has to: he is in such despair that God is his only hope.

Few moments in pop music describe the searing loss of a lover with the outburst that Costello lets loose at the song’s climax:

I might as well wipe her from my memory
Fracture the spell, as she becomes my enemy
Maybe I was washed out like a lip-print on my shirt
See, I'm only human, I want her to hurt.

Marinated in melancholy, Painted From Memory masterfully expressed what Wall Street Journal critic Marc Myers called this past March “the anguish of failed relationships—creating a new breed of saloon song minus the saloon.”

"I Still Have That Other Girl" brought Costello and Bacharach a 1999 Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. But it turned out to be the last studio album they put out during Bacharach’s lifetime.

Bacharach died in February, only a few weeks before the release of a 4-CD box set, The Songs of Bacharach and Costello. The set includes a remastered version of Painted From Memory; Taken from Life, a song cycle reflecting the development of Painted from Memory into an abortive Broadway musical that would have been co-produced by Big Bang Theory showrunner Chuck Lorre; a collection of concert performances, mostly piano-and-vocal from Costello and another Bacharach collaborator, Steve Nieve; and other live Costello performances of scattered Bacharach and David songs over the years.

Recently I blogged about another artist—director Martin Scorsese—moving in a direction not expected by longtime fans with his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. In a similar radical overturning of expectations, Costello, with Bacharach’s plush orchestration in Painted From Memory, could not have more astounded listeners who wanted no part of collaboration with one of the prime purveyors of Sixties MOR music.

Yet Costello, like Scorsese, created what many now regard as a distinct highlight in a career full of them. And Painted From Memory, like The Age of Innocence, continually rewards those who return to it to find new subtleties each time.

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