When Burt Bacharach & Elvis Costello Collaborated

Burt Bacharach, who passed away recently, was one of the most talented songwriters, producers and artists in the pop music pantheon. During his decades long career, Bacharach composed or co-wrote (often with Hal David) over seventy Top 40 hits in the US. On the surface, well-known tunes like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” and “This Guy’s In Love With You” may seem like simple little love songs which resolutely earworm their way into your head. Bacharach’s memorable compositions were filled with complex chord changes and unique arrangements, that were quite difficult to perform, and there was a deep vein of heartache and emotion beneath the pop music sheen of his best songs.

It’s no surprise that one of Bacharach’s biggest fans is Elvis Costello, himself no stranger to songs about heartbreak and the sharper edges of love. Painted From Memory, the phenomenal album they recorded together, turns twenty-five years old this year. The project grew out of “God Give Me Strength,” an exquisite song the duo wrote for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, directed by Alison Anders, a tale of a Brill Building-era songwriter and performer (loosely based on Carole King) played by Ileana Douglas. Bacharach and Costello enjoyed working together, and decided to continue their collaboration on a full-length project.

The album is filled with moody, heartbreaking tales of regret, longing, and lost love, such as “This House Is Empty Now” and “In The Darkest Place.” These powerful songs evoke the vivid landscapes of Bacharach’s best compositions from the 1960s, augmented by Costello’s knack for illuminating the darker side of romance, evidenced on tracks like “The Sweetest Punch,” and “This House Is Empty Now.” The beautiful arrangements, a hallmark of Bacharach’s work, give the record a classic feeling and sound, without making it seem dated. Listening to Painted From Memory is a rich and rewarding experience, and will likely jar memories of your own adventures with the ups and downs of love and relationships.

Painted From Memory was well-received by both reviewers and fans upon its release in 1998, and helped re-ignite interest in Bacharach’s music. It inspired a successful tour, with the duo performing the songs from the album, as well as selections from Bacharach’s classic catalog. The album also sparked releases outside the pop genre. In 1999, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell issued The Sweetest Punch, an album of re-arranged, mostly instrumental versions of the songs from Painted From Memory.

Bacharach and Costello also appeared on several television shows, including the Late Show with David Letterman and Sessions at West 57th, to promote the record. These wonderful live performances are a testament to the haunting and powerful quality of the music this talented duo created together.

The Songs of Bacharach and Costello, a new collection that celebrates the collaboration between these two brilliant artists, is set to be released in early March. The compilation will feature a remastered edition of Painted From Memory, as well as unreleased songs and live tracks, including several songs from a planned but never produced stage adaptation of the album. Twenty-five years later, Painted From Memory remains a high point in the careers of both artists, and serves as a reminder of the lasting power of their unique talents.

-John Visconti

Photo: Cover of “Painted From Memory” (fair use)

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John Visconti is a lifelong music and movie aficionado with wide-ranging tastes, including The Beatles, Otis Redding, and Bruce Springsteen, right on through to modern-day practitioners of power pop and retro soul. You can get into a spirited discussion with him about various film noir classics, or the relative merits of the entries in Toho’s Godzilla series. After long stints in both publishing and IT, he’s currently working in the healthcare world in a non-clinical role. You can check out his blog, John V's Eclectic Avenue at http://jveclectic.blogspot.com.

1 comment on “When Burt Bacharach & Elvis Costello Collaborated

  1. michaelnycny

    Great article on, in my opinion, an all-time, timeless classic. Beautiful. I listen to it regularly from start to finish, which isn’t an easy thing to do with most albums these days.

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