Listen now on:
Where now it’s a bleep and a name on a screen, not so long ago it was the sound of an old-school telephone. The herald of something wonderful, or the precursor to your doom, that clear, pealing bell could end an eternity of suspense, but even waiting in agony was preferable to giving up and letting go.
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s 1998 masterpiece Painted From Memory is the ring of the telephone—slightly old-fashioned, as if only recently lost to the world, yet insistently clear and capable of flooding the heart with all the awful beauty of love’s highs and lows. Mostly lows. “In the darkest place,” it all begins, “I know that is where you’ll find me.” And from there it doesn’t get much better, except that it gets so much better.
The people who move through these 12 perfect pop songs aren’t teenagers tasting first-love tears. They’re grownups who know all too well what they’ve done to get themselves where they are, and where they are is a realm we’ve all visited from time to time, a dimension where time ticks away just a bit more slowly and the world passes by at a remove. They are displaced and disconnected, seen only in fine silver frames, distant cities or watching from afar. They live in empty houses, and wait for sleep to come and take them somewhere else, and all this they do to music meticulously crafted by two experts at the form. Neither man is a stranger to collaboration, but together they are a singular pairing, as Costello brings discipline and edge to Bacharach’s lush melodic outpourings, while Bacharach returns the favor by setting Costello’s exacting progressions and taut wordplay in soundscapes that are both intricate and silky smooth. Take, as a spectacular example, “What’s Her Name Today?,” a Costellian pondering on the ruin brought about by those in pain that’s not so much backed by Bacharach’s purposeful grand piano as admonished—you’re a fool it declares, before sweeping up the whole affair into a whirlwind of strings and human wreckage. Other times, they’re much more sympathetic, deploying Bacharach’s famous mellow trumpet to harmonize with the vocals on the tricky tale of infidelity “Toledo,” or winking at the conceit of “The Sweetest Punch” by threading the tune with chimes, a lovely instrument you have to hit, with mallets.
The sum of this artistic one + one is more than strictly musical. By coming together when they did, each man underwent a kind of recalibration whereby the sheen of kitsch acquired by Bacharach’s body of work since his ’60s heyday was stripped away, and Costello, then in his mid-40s, shed the last lingering remnants of his image as an angry young man. In turn, Painted From Memory itself became a bridge, connecting classic works of love and loss—think Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours—to the wave of pop-jazz new schoolers (Norah Jones, Michael Bublé) that followed closely in its wake.
Costello and Bacharach know that opening yourself up to the sentimental side of life exposes you to its cruelties as well; it takes some courage, and so they conclude Painted From Memory with the plea for fortitude and grace that began it all. “God Give Me Strength”—which, it must be said, they wrote over the phone lines—is the first of the pair’s dual efforts and it remains one of the best, an achingly gorgeous last-stand waltz through the end stages of grief. “That song is sung out,” it concedes, “this bell is rung out.” Except that it isn’t, because there’s something in all of us, the part that Painted From Memory renders so well, that will always wait for the bell to ring. That damned, beautiful bell.