Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach go way back. They go back further than 1998’s Painted From Memory. More than 40 years, in fact.
Back in the late 1970s, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” was a staple of Costello’s antsy live shows with the Attractions and even popped up on the 1978 comp Live Stiffs, featuring artists from Stiff Records’ roster. A clever performance, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect from the group circa This Year’s Model: a burst of fidgety sexual energy that nevertheless proved that the angry young agitnerd in the thick-framed specs harbored a love for the pop music of the previous decade — in particular, the succinct songcraft of Bacharach and his writing partner Hal David. And Costello shows he has the interpretive chops to deliver the song in a meaningful way, to make the cover sound like something more than just a stunt. There’s confusion and some anger in his voice, but no irony or condescension regarding what must have been at the time deeply unhip source material.
Nearly 20 years later, Costello covered the song again. In the meantime he had tossed those spectacles in the gutter, along with his image as England’s angry young man. For one thing, he wasn’t young anymore; in 1998 he turned 44. For another, while many fans still consider punk to be his default setting, he was only ever punk by association, combining the volatility of that movement with the ragged straightforwardness and innate Britishness of pub rock. But even that was just a springboard for subsequent forays into the arch C&W of 1981’s Almost Blue, the polished West Coast pop of 1986’s King Of America, and the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink of the ’80s-closing Spike. He released three studio albums in the 1990s, but they were overshadowed by one-offs like 1993’s The Juliet Letters (a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet) and 1995’s Kojak Variety (a covers album as collaboration series).
In 1996 Costello resurrected “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” for Costello & Nieve, a live companion to the same year’s All This Useless Beauty. You can hear all the years that have passed between the two versions, all the lessons that Costello has learned during what was even then a long and respectable career. He savors the melancholy of the lyrics, the drama of that pleading melody, and he emerges as a technically stronger and much more confident vocalist, sustaining the notes and filling more of the song with his voice. “It’s different every time we sing it, that one,” he tells the crowd, and you believe him.
All of which is to stay that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that Costello would get around to making a full record with Bacharach, who had already emerged as a musical hero for the man born Declan MacManus. What is truly startling, however, is how sturdy that record turned out to be, how well the two complemented each other. Even 20 years later, it’s more than a mere curio in either man’s catalog, more than lark or a bit of hero worship. For Costello it was the culmination of a lifelong obsession with Bacharach; for Bacharach, it was more like coming out of hiding, like Livingston emerging from the jungle.
He hadn’t released an album since the late ’70s, back when Costello was first trying his luck with “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.” That’s an eternity in pop music — just long enough for a new generation to discover his catalog. The year of our lord 1998 was pivotal for the songwriter, marked not only by the release of the box set The Look Of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (still the best overview of his career) but also by his brief cameo in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery. A whole generation was introduced to the songwriter when he crooned “What The World Needs Now Is Love” atop a double-decker bus as Mike Myers and Elizabeth Hurley danced along. What might have been ironic was anything but: especially with that intro from Myers, the film presented him as the ultimate symbol of pop sophistication who had less trouble adjusting to the ’90s than the title character.
Painted From Memory has its roots in film, in particular Alison Anders’ Grace Of My Heart, a loose fictionalization of the ’60s pop scene from the Brill Building to the West Coast beaches. Costello teamed with Bacharach to pen “God Give Me Strength,” writing the song and its arrangement via fax. As Costello explains in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & 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.”
Each brought the best out in the other. Bacharach sounded newly focused, with few of the florid flourishes that made some of his ’60s material so (joyously, wonderfully) cheesy. And Costello didn’t settle for cleverness or sour into bitterness. These are some of his most generous songs of the 1990s, full of complex and contradictory characters who find themselves often at odds with their most deeply felt romantic impulses. “Such Unlikely Lovers” conjures both the excitement and the trepidation of a new relationship, and while there’s a chance it might be in one unlikely lover’s head, Costello never pulls the rug out from under them. That kind of sweetness might be typical from Bacharach, but it’s new from Costello.
“If you can’t be my lover, be my thief,” he sings on the very next song, as though surrendering himself to being lovelorn. “I feel almost possessed, so long as I don’t lose this glorious distress.” These are songs about the romance of heartache, the weight of pain that reminds us we’re at the very least alive. Maybe there was something old-fashioned in that notion circa 1998, but both Costello and Bacharach seem to realize they’re men out of time, subsisting on the pop confections of the distant past. They just don’t know what to do with themselves, or so they say. What Painted From Memory does is propose a very new sound for adult contemporary pop music in the new millennium. At a time when that meant either the bombast of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or the alt-pablum of Goo Goo Dolls, Costello and Bacharach infuse the genre with something like quiet dignity, as though adult might be something to embrace rather than avoid. In 2018, that almost sounds radical.
Painted From Memory launched both Costello and Bacharach into the new millennium renewed and reinvigorated. Bacharach even made a solo record, 2005’s At This Time, a supremely breezy protest album that was largely underrated upon release (and I should know, as I underrated it). Costello, meanwhile, took Painted as the template for a series of albums that all put him in conversation with a range of collaborators: T Bone Burnett, the Roots, Allen Toussaint. His latest, Look Now, may be his first in a decade that’s just a plain old Elvis Costello record: Rather than burrow into one style or genre, he mashes up all those previous pairings together into a wild and adventurous sound, as though it’s the culmination of the last two decades of one-offs and experiments. And right in the middle of it is Bacharach, playing piano on “Photographs Can Lie” like it’s 1998 all over again.