A year ago he left usat the age of 94, Burt Bacharach. Only a month before his death the publication of a box set entitled had been announced “The Songs of Bacharach & Costello” which would have been published on March 3, 2023. Therefore, just under a month after the death of the American musician, a work was released that reaped the fruits of the long collaboration (over 25 years) between Elvis Costello And Burt Bacharach. With our review of this box written by Michele Boroni We remember the first anniversary of the death of Burt Bacharach.
In recent years we have listened to dozens and dozens of box sets and deluxe versions of memorable records but which added little or nothing in terms of both artistic content and narrative. This is not the case with this 4cd/2Lp Super Deluxe box (but there is also a shortened 2cd version) of “The Songs of Bacharach & Costello” which recounts the 25 years of the artistic partnership between Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, offering us the remastered version by Bob Ludwig of that absolute masterpiece that is “Painted From Memory” (1998), plus a series of subsequent collaborations that include the music for two musicals (never made), live versions and those of other performers. In practice a corpus of 45 songs of which 19 are unreleased. A premise: this box set was announced in early January to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Painted from memory”; the coincidence with Bacharach’s recent passing is obviously an unpleasant coincidence.
The beauty of this box set is the possibility of being able to tell the story well before the first songs recorded as a couple.
In fact, already in 1977 in the midst of the punk revolution, Elvis Costello performed Bacharachi’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do with Myself” live together with his Attraction, later contained in the album “Live Stiffs” by Stiff Records in 1978 and which is present in the box set. At the time many thought it was an ironic mockery, but instead it was a heartfelt homage. Bacharach’s music continued to resonate in Costelli’s repertoire: Nick Lowe and Costello duetted on “Baby It’s You” by Bacharach, Dixon and Mack (Hal’s brother) David for the 1984 “Lowe” EP; years later in his “Kojak Variety” (1995) he recorded “(Don’t Go) Please Stay” by the Drifters, written by Bacharach. So Bacharach has always been in Costello’s musical DNA, right from the start. But in reality the precious booklet gives us a photo from 1963, where McManus Senior (Elvis Costello’s father) is seen singing with the Joe Loss Orchestra at the Royal Variety Show together with Marlene Dietrich. In the audience, a few meters from the Beatles, there is Dietrich’s musical director, Burt Bacharach.
The meeting between Elvis & Burt came thanks to Hollywood and the possibility of being able to write a song together for the fascinating and imperfect 1996 film by Allison Anders “Grace Of My Heart”, a film that told the story loosely based on the life of Carole King crossing paths with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Gerry Goffin and many others of New York’s Brill Building scene of the early 1960s. The two worked together via fax and telephone and Bacharach, exalted by the theme of the film, returned after many years to write in 6/8 and 12/8.
From here starts the extraordinary collaboration that leads to the creation of the majestic and inspired “Painted from Memory” of 1998, a record that maintains the same visceral and thrilling emotionality of Bacharach’s triumphs in the ’60s, in which beauty and pain are perfectly mixed.
Elvis Costello’s lyrics are particularly inspiring and perfectly channel the torrent of conflicting emotions following his separation from wife Cate O’Riordan after 16 years of marriage. “In the darkest place”, “The house is empty now”, “I Still Have That Other Girl” to name just a few, are timeless songs. Bacharach arranges everything in grand orchestral style, with Johnny Mandel writing the stunning string score for the title track. Upon a deeper listen to the new remaster you can notice the brighter piano and strings in the aforementioned “In the Darkest Place” and “Toledo” also sounds very nice with more detail on the acoustic guitars and bells.
Following the success (especially critical) of “Painted from Memory”, playwright Chuck Lorre (the showrunner of “Big Bang Theory”) proposes that Costello and Bacharach write other songs and consider the idea of adapting the album for the stage in a musical entitled “Taken from life”. The musical will never be made, but the songs will, performed by different performers including Audra Mae, Judy Garland’s great-granddaughter, in a sublime and spare version of “In the Darkest Place”, Jenni Muldaur in the Kurtweilian “Shameless” and even Bacharach himself in the melancholy “Lie Back And Think Of England”. Among the pearls of this second album are the unreleased torch songs “Look up again” and “You can have her” performed by an inspired Costello accompanied by the orchestra by Vince Mendoza, recorded in September 2021. The same CD also contains a pair of jazz reinterpretations of the couple contained in the album “The Sweetest Punch” by Bill Frisell together with Cassandra Wilson and Don Byron.
The other two CDs contain live versions of the songs from “Painted…” and other Bacharach classics. In particular, the third disc offers seven songs taken from the Bacharach/Costello songbook performed live by Costello and pianist Steve Nieve on various dates of a 1999 tour plus their intimate version of “I’ll Never Fall in Love ” by Bacharach/David. Also noteworthy on this album is the touching performance by Burt and Elvis of “This House Is Empty Now” recorded at the Late Night with Conan O’Brien in November 1998. The fourth disc instead contains, in addition to the aforementioned Constellian versions before the meeting , also some excerpts from the short tour that Bacharach and Costello did together following the release of the album.
In short, it is a precious box set with great artistic value and which testifies to the collaboration between two musicians of different generations but united by their great talent in writing complex love songs for adults which have now become classics, starting from that fantastic “You knocked me out / It was the sweetest punch”.