The 90s could be called the decade of duets. Singers sang with dead relatives and won Grammies; others at opposite ends of the earth put voice to tape and through the magic of studio wizardry created duets that sold millions. What the motivation was for the collaborations just mentioned I really can't say. But the motivation behind the best collaboration recently in history is easy to pinpoint: respect, love of music, and a desire to create something new, real, original, and magical. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach have done just that with "Painted From Memory".
It is interesting to note that the seeds for this relationship started many years ago, when "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself", a song written by Burt Bacharach, became a staple of Elvis' early shows with the Attractions. Years later, both artists were asked to write a song together for the soundtrack to the movie "Grace of My Heart"; that song became "God Give Me Strength", which closes this new CD.
Yet this album is more than a chance to capitalize on that song. This album is an honest and beautiful collection of love songs; songs about lost love, painful love, love thrown away, and the things love makes us do.
The moment you hear the opening notes of "The Darkest Place", you realize that this will not be a happy record. But the words to this song only begin to give us a glimpse into the pain lost love causes the singer:
Since you put me down it seems I've been very gloomy
You may laugh, but pretty girls look right through me
One theme that runs through this album is the act of infidelity and the guilt and hurt it causes. In "I Still Have that Other Girl", Elvis deals with the desires and doubts when contemplating cheating on ones loved one:
If my reluctance seems a surprise,
It's not cause I don't want you
I know I must hesitate
Because I still have that other girl
And in "Toledo", the main character wrestles with the aftermath of his unfaithfulness:
But If I call, I know I wont have to say it
You'll hear my voicesomething is bound to betray it
This song so brilliantly addresses the consequences of a guilty conscience and how the world becomes a different place when we have stumbled or fallen, how our whole being is consumed with what we have done.
So I walked outside in the bright sunshine and lovers pass by
But they don't know the fool I was
Why should they care what was lost,
What was broken?"
In "My Thief" Elvis sings a song to a lost lover who haunts his dreams. Here he must deal with the emotions of hanging onto to something that is no longer his, knowing full well it is time to let go. The line "What fades in time will hurt much more" aptly describes the feelings we all have when a memory of a lost love diminishes over time.
Through out the whole album Elvis sings as if he feels each and every word. Where once stood an angry young man now stands a hopeless romantic whose intensity makes the listener feel the hurt as well. And yet his words are only half of the package; Burt Bacharach's arrangements and orchestration of the music he and Elvis wrote together adds just as much to this masterpiece.
Anyone familiar with Burt's music from the 60s, 70s, or 80s will be pleased by his work on this record. For those who are not familiar with his music, sit back and enjoy the little surprises in store; Burt's magical arrangements use unexpected little surprises to create those little touches that make this record special. When you are expecting background vocals, you hear none; but then so softly and unexpected the voices arrive, only to disappear again.
A touch of flugelhorn here and wash of strings there, and you are transported to another world of a person whose life is in disarray. Burt is one of the great architects of modern music, and he knows that sometimes the best way to say something is to say nothing at all. And Elvis has learned from the master. Neither the music nor the vocals overpower each other or the listener. From the sequence of songs to the tight musical arrangements, the hard work that went into this record shows from beginning to end. Everything is in its place.
Sure, this album is sad, melancholy, and at times dark. In a recent interview Elvis said that these songs are about the necessity of feeling something, and the music is about trying to have those feelings. If that was the only purpose, then they have accomplished it. But even more, they have combined two generations of songwriters and made an album of timeless music. No matter how sad the songs are, you can't help but smile a little while listening to this masterpiece of modern music.
Michael Van Gorden