Burt Bacharach’s songs are deft studies in light and dark, order and chaos, optimism in a major key and doubt in a minor key. The lyrics of songs like “Walk on By”, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, “Trains and Boats and Planes” and many others convey overwhelming and messy emotions, while the music itself sounds exquisite. and crafted with precision. Each element heightens the other to make the song more relatable and in some ways even more pleasurable to anyone with a heart. On “Tears at the Birthday Party,” which Bacharach co-wrote with Elvis Costello for his 1998 album painted from memory, the contrast between joy and sadness is almost cartoonish: “I see you sharing your cake with him, unwrapping presents he should have sent you,” Costello sings, knowing he can’t look but can’t look away either. What could have been maudlin becomes witty, even winking, thanks to Bacharach’s casually rocking arrangement, which is both likeable and sugary.
Bacharach and Costello were exceptionally well matched, each bringing to the surface something barely glimpsed in the other. Costello has collaborated closely with the Brodsky Quartet, Roots, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Allen Toussaint, but few challenged him more than Bacharach. In return, he gives Bacharach some of the darkest sentiments of his to compose, extremely grim settings with titles like “In the Darkest Place” and “The Sweetest Punch.” They’re never as bitter as Costello’s notoriously bitter 1979 love songs. Armed forces, but they still need Bacharach’s light touch. That contrast encourages The songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharachwhat does it say painted from memory on vinyl along with later collaborations, live cuts, and covers that Costello recorded in the ’70s and ’80s.
They wrote their first song together via a fax machine. In the mid-1990s, Costello sent Bacharach ideas for a song called “God Give Me Strength”, and Bacharach responded by sharpening some lines and adding a new bridge, which turned out to be the missing piece. The finished composition first appeared on the 1996 soundtrack for Grace of my heart, Allison Anders film loosely based on the career of Carole King. All the elements that would define her collaborative album were already present in the song: the strings and flugelhorns, the elegant expression of inelegant sentiments. It opens like a conventional breakup song, with Costello mourning the loss of a lover and praying to God for the ability to “wipe her from my memory”. But the bridge reveals a darker side to her situation: “Look, I’m only human,” she sings, trying to exonerate herself from what comes next: “I want her to hurt.” It’s the first time he’s mentioned another man, the third piece in this love triangle, and when Costello returns to the song’s prayer refrain, it’s with a new recognition of the depths he’s sunk to and the violent thoughts he’s haunted. now houses in his absence.