What do you get?
When an arranged marriage blossoms: a 4-CD box set of their entire collaborative output.
IN 1977, as musical revolution swirled around them, faux punks Elvis Costello & The Attractions shared Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself with their spittle-dispensing audiences. A version played at the University of East Anglia opens the fourth and final disc of this collection: it’s straight and reverent, hushed and tasteful. As Costello notes in a whopping 10,000-word accompanying essay to a collection which hoovers up every song Bacharach and Costello wrote together and much more, it was “like waving a fist full of red-rags at a pile of bullshit, but I can assure you there was not the slightest hint of irony in my performance.”
Who’d have thought then that almost half a centur y later, Bacharach and Costello would be long-term collaborators? Obviously not Bacharach, a man whom, you suspect, punk may well have bypassed. Costello? He couldn’t have known, but the tenderness of his cover suggests he may, at least, have hoped…
It was an arranged marriage. They were shoe-horned together in 1995 by one Karyn
Ratchman, supervisor of the Grace Of My Heart soundtrack. By then, Costello was a serial collaborator, but beyond a dabble with Neil Diamond, Bacharach had never written music with anyone.
Yet arranged marriages often grow into something deeper and God Give Me Strength was soon assembled by fax. That in turn spawned the Painted From
Memory album, where in best Brill Building tradition, they breathed the same air as they wrote the same song.
Remastered here, Painted From Memory wasn’t love at first listen and those expecting Do You Know The Way To Oliver’s Army? expected in vain. Bacharach took his cue from the less-than-instant Are You There (With Another Girl) and The Look Of Love, while on Costello’s side, the cloying density of Trust and
Imperial Bedroom took hold.
First impressions often lie. It’s a beauty. Less two worlds colliding, it was two worlds melding. As he had in 1977, Costello sang without irony or sneer and he’s never sounded as broken as he does on This House Is Empty Now. Behind those vocals, the pair fashioned lavish, multi-layered, empathetic backdrops.
There’s a lot more: a live disc of Costello and Steve Nieve stripping the songs down and another of Costello tackling Bacharach/David classics, sometimes with Bacharach himself.
But the real find is the hotch-potch, 16-track (some of which make the half-hearted two-LP version) Taken From Life, where new and more recent Bacharach/Costello collaborations nestle alongside tributes such as Cassandra Wilson and Bill Frisell’s gorgeous re-working of Painted From Memory, Jenni Muldaur’s rue on Stripping Paper, while Costello & The Imposters are acerbic on Ever yone’s Playing House. It’s a treasure trove within a set that defines how well collaborations can work.