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Bacharach and Costello: Memories Were Made Of this

From 1998 to 2001 Elvis Costello went on a tear, a lost and possibly final, rush of masterpieces that feel a long, long time ago now. In 1998 he released “Painted From Memory” with Burt Bacharah and the contemporary recorded “The Sweetest Punch” with Bill Frissel and in 2001 “For The Stars” with Anne Sofie Van Otter. The very next year his decline would begin in earnest “When I Was Cruel”.

“Painted From Memory” remains one of Costello’s finest moments, written with master pop song writer Burt Bacharah these are a series of perfectly realized, heavily orchestrated tonal pop melodies. The collaboration began with “God Give Me Strength” in 1996 -written for a semi-fictional retelling of the King-Goffin romance “Grace Of My Heart” the movie ended up being a chick flick but the song a pop stroke. Written via fax per Costello the effects of learning how to read a music for once anything but a curse for EC’s increasingly convoluted style.
“PFA” feels like something of a master class at the knee of the great Bacharah whose list of hits from “The Look Of Love” thru “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” to “Rose Garden” are part of the canon. Bacharah imparted on Costello’s lyrics self-control, bacharah wouldn’t allow him to cheat on syllabels the way a rock singer does (if you haven’t written enough beats you just stretch a syllabel over a sufficient amount of bars) and what started as an exercise in finese pop became a gold standard. Every orchestration is spot on, every emotion economically instilled with a self-control remarkable from a man given to histrionics.

With exceptions (big exceptions) are formed around the keyboards more than even Costello’s vocals and the orchestra -mostly strings- are like the flood gates of emotion when they swell behind his soaring voice. Indeed, it soars in way we haven’t heard it soar before. On “What’s Her Name Today” the piano leads him, om “God Give Me Strength” the horns and the production is unobtrusive giving the songs a live feel. A full orchestration lead by Nacharah are both front and center and irrelevant, one of a pucture puzzle of sound merging for a supreme sense of pop perfection.

Costello himself is different then he ever was before or after. “Painted” was not the first time Costello’s eclecticism had come to the forefront of his career but it was the first time he nailed it. “Painted” was not the faux-opera of “The Juliet Letters” with the Brodsky Quarter, “Juliet” was such a different type of music from Costello’s but Bacharah was a forefather to Costello’s rock music; it stretched him without bending him.

The result was one great song after another. Now more than ever the Costello persona was buried -no one would mistake Costello the popular musician with Costello the rock and roll misanthrope: the squinty eyed nerd was over and done ith and whatever the songs reflected they absolutely did not reflect a diary of past relationships. On “Toledo” the infidility was purely a lyric albeit a very very fine one. Here is the chorus:
“But do people living in ToledoKnow that their name hasn’t travelled very well?And does anybody in OhioDream of that Spanish citadel?But it’s no use saying that I love youAnd how that girl really didn’t mean a thing to meFor if anyone should look into your eyesIt’s not forgiveness that they’re gonna see”

“The Sweetest Punch” sounds so much like Bacharah and so much like EC: its as if they had this most beautiful of a child; it’s a major mix of both especially leading to chorus line “I can hear it ringing, but I didn’t see it coming” with its keyboard trills and accented strings: a sort of anticipatory sadness. The album is full of moments like this (it won a Grammy for best pop Album with vocals) and the effect is one of a highly glossed and yet very caring pop confection: it’s as though its point of view, reason for being, was the intense care put into every aspect of the album.
When you listen to somebody like Marvin Gaye there is a calculated consideration of the needs of a song that amounts to a condemnation of the indifference placed upon song and upon people. In 98 Costello and Bacharah were placing the responsibility for the songwriter with the songwriter until Bill Frissel would take it back and give it to the musician. As jazz guitarists go there is nobody more informed by atmospherics than Frissel: he is all about the tone of the music and in these if not lite jazz than certainly smooth instrumentals the songs are slimmed down from the orchestration and are indeed more accessible. Good stuff.
Three years later with the Mezzo-Soprano Annie Sofie von Otter, Costello released “For The Stars” and it is his finest collaboration. Chosing pop songs like Tom Waits “Broken Bicycles” sung by Von Otter segueing beautifully into McCartney’s “Junk” and blending together. It is the best moment on a transcendally beautiful album.
The very next year Costello returned to his angry young man and attractions rock stance, the way he returned on “Brutal Youth” with one big difference. “When I was Cruel” was a bad album as convoluted and self-conscious as the title of just one song: “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)”.
EC seldom play any of these songs in concert nowadays but he should think about keeping “Toledo” in his canon.

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