Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach : The Songs of Bacharach & Costello

songs of bacharach and costello review

While it was clear from his choice of live cover material in his early career that Elvis Costello was a huge fan of Burt Bacharach, a collaboration between the two musical titans still seemed like an odd fit before it materialized. After all, Costello, on his rock-oriented albums, spewed out hyperliterate lyrics overstuffed into the lines of his songs. Bacharach, meanwhile, built his reputation on sophisticated pop songs that were ultra-precise in how the words were deployed in service of swooping melodies, inventive time signatures (hat sizes, as Frank Sinatra called them), and silky rhythms.

Yet Painted From Memory, the pair’s 1998 album, received near-unanimous critical acclaim upon its release. And the pair kept at it over the years, mostly in the service of a hoped-for but never realized musical production of the Painted songs, which required new compositions to flesh out the story. Then there were the many times that Costello, occasionally with Bacharach, performed the original album’s songs in concert or dipped into Burt’s back catalog for live material.

All of that and more can be found on the comprehensive collection The Songs of Bacharach & Costello. Over 2 LPs and 4 CDs (in the deluxe edition), listeners can trace the evolution of this partnership. By the time it’s all imbibed, it’s hard to even think of a time when the two might have seemed like a square peg and a round hole. Instead, the evidence here suggests that Costello deserves a prime spot on the list of Bacharach’s most fruitful musical partners, from Dionne Warwick as an artist to Hal David and Carole Bayer Sager as lyricists.

If nothing else, this collection yields easy access to Painted From Memory on vinyl (you had to cough up a car payment or two to get a copy previously). It’s not quite right to say the album has aged well because it pretty much came out of the gate sounding timeless in 1998. Thematically bound by lost love, Costello tripped effortlessly among Bacharach’s flugelhorns, strings and dramatic pauses. Ballads like the title track and “This House Is Empty Now” devastatingly evoke feelings of regret and despair, while slinky mid-tempo numbers like “Tears at the Birthday Party” and “The Sweetest Punch” scale baroque pop heights. Towering closing track “God Give Me Strength” still induces chills.

On Disc 2 (Taken From Life), the songs written for the stage show take are revealed. A few saw the light of day on Costello’s 2018 album Look Now. But the ones appearing on record the first time make the most impact. They tend to put a finer point on the more generalized themes of loneliness found on Painted From Memory. Performances by vocalists Audra Mae and Jenni Muldaur on showstopping laments like “Stripping Paper” and “I Looked Away” transcend any narrative structure to which they were originally supposed to adhere. 

The third disc focuses on Costello’s various live renderings of Painted numbers, and the fun part here is listening to Steve Nieve, Elvis’ longtime keyboard wizard with the Attractions and Imposters, tear into Bacharach’s lush melodies. Costello diehards will likely know a lot of the stuff on the fourth disc: an early Attractions performance of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” Costello and old buddy Nick Lowe strolling through “Baby It’s You,” the version of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” performed by Elvis and Burt in an Austin Powers film. Some final live takes of Elvis joining Burt for standards like “Anyone Who Had a Heart” round this generous package out.

There’s a kind of odd duck of a track here that turns out to be essential: Bacharach’s demo on piano and vocal of “Lie Down and Think of England,” a number the pair wrote for an unfinished Austin Powers musical. In the wake of Burt’s passing on February 8 at the age of 94, this performance highlights the bittersweet timing of The Songs of Bacharach & Costello, while Elvis’ lovely essay that accompanies the package elucidates his affection for his collaborator. This collection proves that any retrospectives on the individual musical legacies of these two men would be incomplete without the inclusion of what they did together. Considering who we’re talking about here, that’s the highest imaginable praise.

Label: Universal

Year: 2023

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