The Odd Couple

Elvis Costello, angry New Wave icon, teams up with Burt Bacharach, meticulous pop maestro of the Austin Powers era. Insane? Inspired.

By Karen Schoemer

Elvis Costello gets top billing on his new album with Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory," but that doesn't fool him. He knows he's just an apprentice. In a recording studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the pair work out the album's finishing touches. Bacharach, 70, is soft-spoken, reticent and instantly authoritative. He sits deep in a swivel chair, a vision in white: white hair, white polo shirt, white sweat shirt knotted around his shoulders. Costello, 44, is more edgy and animated. He's roguish in black: black leather jacket, black shirt, black trousers, plus a flat-brimmed straw hat that gives him a deadpan, Buster Keaton air. An engineer runs a playback of the title track. Bacharach listens. Costello watches him listen.

The music that pours out of the speakers is so opulent and romantic it seems to come from another era. Cloudbursts of strings swell dramatically, then billow into silence, flugelhorns croon, harp notes shiver. Jutting up against Bacharach's pristine arrangement is Costello's voice, with its scratchy, punkish undertone. He sings metaphor-laden lyrics about lost love: "Funny how looks can be deceiving/But she's not easily painted from memory." The track is almost perfect--almost. The engineer plays it back again and again. Suddenly Bacharach starts laughing. He's detected a flaw: buried beneath the sonic grandeur is a single, humble finger snap. "I must have done it unconsciously while I was conducting," Bacharach says. "I never noticed it before." Costello wonders if the engineer should get rid of it: "Just in case we hear it later and go, 'What the hell is that?' " But Bacharach has made up his mind. "I'd leave it," he says. "It's great. It's part of the cloth."

Burt and Elvis: the names don't ring out quite as naturally as, say, Felix and Oscar or Bing and Bob. But "Painted From Memory" is without doubt one of the most inspired odd couplings of the pop year. The idea was Elvis's. He was so happy a few years ago when he and Bacharach collaborated on a song for the film "Grace of My Heart" that he suggested they make a whole album. The match made perfect sense to them. Despite his lingering New Wave bad-boy image, Costello has a musicologist's passion for different styles and genres. Just in the '90s, he's recorded a song cycle with a string quartet ("The Juliet Letters"), soul and rockabilly standards ("Kojak Variety") and well-tailored rock with his band the Attractions ("Brutal Youth"). Bacharach, meanwhile, has been getting hip--not again, but really for the first time. He was good-humored enough to serenade swinging Mike Myers in the '60s goof "Austin Powers." Last April, youngsters like Ben Folds Five and Sheryl Crow convened for a tribute concert, with Bacharach himself conducting. He loves the attention. "A friend asked me when I'll stop," he says. "I told him, 'When I can get a standing ovation walking down the street in Santa Monica'."

What's great about the renewed interest in Bacharach is that it's sincere. Kitschmeisters, beware: "Painted From Memory" isn't some jokey attempt to latch on to the lounge boom. It's more "Anyone Who Had a Heart" than "What's New, Pussycat?", more "One Less Bell to Answer" than "Me Japanese Boy I Love You." (To sample the range of Bacharachiana, from sublime to cheesy, get "The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection," a three-CD boxed set due Nov. 3 from Rhino Records.) "Painted From Memory" is the result of a generation coming of age that doesn't think the Bacharach tradition is silly. Costello's at the vanguard. He heard Dionne Warwick's version of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" when he was growing up in England, and thought it mystical. "I knew it was about something I didn't understand, even though the words were completely comprehensible and brilliantly written," Costello says. "The music had a sexy thing about it--a sort of adult thrill."

At the time, Bacharach's music couldn't have been less hip. A classically trained pianist and composer who came of age writing in the New York hit factory the Brill Building, Bacharach was handing Warwick a little tune called "Alfie" right around the start of the Summer of Love. Between 1962 and 1970, Bacharach and his great lyricist, Hal David, scored dozens of hits, most of them ruminations on the horrifying complexities of love. It was some of the only adult music the '60s produced. "I think Burt's restraint reveals a real depth of feeling," Costello says. "There's a danger in believing one form of music is more valid than another. There were frauds in the Tin Pan Alley era, frauds in the psychedelic era, frauds in the grunge era. The best songwriters are just the best songwriters."

For Costello, "Painted From Memory" is a chance to immerse himself in the nearly lost art of orchestral pop songwriting--to resurrect not just the music, but the craft that brought it to life. He and Bacharach wrote the music during intensive five-day sessions in New York. Then he spent a summer at home in Dublin (Bacharach's based in L.A., where he lives with his third wife and two small children), whittling lyrics to fit Bacharach's exacting melodic specifications. "He's very precise," Costello says. "Sometimes I tried to steal a couple of notes--you know, 'I've got this great line that would fit if you'd just give me another semiquaver!' But in the end I'd find a different way to say the same thing. It was good discipline."

"Painted From Memory" ultimately bears more of Bacharach's imprint than Costello's. It feels like Burt doing his thing, and Elvis running to keep up with him. And that finger snap notwithstanding, some songs feel a little too perfect, with every violin note in place, every word meticulously sculpted. Still, Bacharach and Costello make a great team. Sitting in a studio lounge after the session, Burt is happy to let Elvis be the outgoing one. Burt seems remote, as if he's still hearing a tune in his head. But when asked a question--does music change?--he gives a simple, powerful answer. "Always," he says. It's a nifty trick he's learned: music changes, and he gets to stay the same.

Newsweek 10/5/98 The Arts/The Odd Couple