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Costello, Bacharach collaboration offers swank ballads

By Noel Murray

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  For the last decade, Elvis Costello has been gradually moving away from the compressed punch of his earliest, best-loved albums. Although he can still yank a heart-stopping riff out of his guitar from time to time, and he can still bite off a nasty, incisive couplet, Costello's bent in recent years has been toward elaborate torch songs, with melodies that creep along so slowly that the listener often forgets the tune between beats.

Working with flamboyant pop composer Burt Bacharach only fosters Costello's yen for sobriety--the duo's 12-track song-cycle Painted From Memory is a serious affair, full of complicated songs about the trials of grown-up romance. It's also genuinely affecting most of the time, with knockout songs that progress like good short stories, catching the audience unaware with their precise images and pithy observations.

The collaboration sprang from one song that Costello and Bacharach recorded together for the soundtrack of the underrated film Grace of My Heart. That song, "God Give Me Strength," appears here at the end of the set and is as impressive as it was two years ago. A classic Bacharach arrangement--mournful horns, a downwardly spiraling piano signature--plays against one of the more heartrending lyrics Costello has ever written. Forced to rely on a delicate croon, the singer delivers an emotionally bare exposition of yearning. "Maybe I was washed out like a lip-print on a shirt/See I'm only human, I want him to hurt," he sings as the song reaches a crashing crescendo. "God Give Me Strength" was written for a woman to sing, but recasting it as a heterosexual male ballad only gives those lines more nuance.

The gem of Painted From Memory, though, is "Toledo," a tricky composition that goes through about a dozen changes. Muted horns give way to the metronomic tap of a drum-rim, backing twin acoustic guitars, and hushed vibes. Costello begins singing about reaching out to a long-distance lover, whom he has cuckolded. Then the chorus bubbles up, backed by two sensual female voices, "But two people/Living in Toledo/Know that their name/Doesn't travel very well/And does anybody in Ohio/Dream of that Spanish citadel?" Costello goes on to a more straightforward description of his woman's hurt, but that cryptic chorus remains haunting. The song is sweet and promises hope, but it's also one-sided and may only be a product of the singer's delusion.

Too much of Painted From Memory is too slow and syrupy, but there are some peppy moments. The one that gooses me up the most is the mid-tempo "Such Unlikely Lovers," which offers dollops of horns, strings, and synths between Costello's plaintive lyrics. It's such a blissed-out MOR song that one almost expects to hear Michael McDonald singing backup, or a tastefully stinging guitar lick by Waddy Wachtel.

I also bounce to "The Sweetest Punch," a horn-and-vibe-fueled roundelay peppered with the kind of boxing metaphors that Costello could probably write while clipping his toenails. It's as elegant as everything else on this collection, but it's notably crisper. Make no mistake--this is not rock 'n' roll. There are string sections, and backup singers, and full-bodied arrangements straight out of some '70s variety show. This is the sort of music that Johnny Carson might've listened to while gearing up for the night's interviews with George Gobel and Dinah Shore.

Costello's voice is more quavery and raspy than the standard Bacharach interpreters, but then again, Andy Williams' ilk could only pray for a song as rich and tender as "This House Is Empty Now," a charged narrative about romantic loss that rewards those patient enough to follow its glacial pace. In the classic sense, to quote one of Costello's early contemporaries, "This is pop!"

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