Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach – The Songs Of Bacharach & Costello

Back in 1998 it might have been easy to see Elvis Costello’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach as one more step away from the skinny-tie, poison-pen new wave which made his name, part of a decade or more of cross-genre dalliances into classical music, soundtracks, and even ballet scores. But Bacharach was always in Elvis’ DNA. As early as 1977, he was setting his bar higher than his peers, trying to write songs with the complex, carnal craft and emotion of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and covering “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. Way back in 1963, as an amazing photo in this handsome new boxset reveals, his dad was singing with the Joe Loss Orchestra at the Royal Variety Show alongside Marlene Dietrich. You can spy McManus Senior a few rows back from The Beatles, just a few yards away from Dietrich’s musical director, one Burt Bacharach

It was a marriage made in Hollywood. Commissioned to write a song for Allison Anders’ fascinating if flawed 1996 film Grace Of My Heart, Elvis impudently faxed a first draft of “God Give Me Strength” to California, to find it returned the next evening, the song now augmented with Burt’s signature melodic gift. Though Bacharach had usually worked strictly with lyricists (Neil Diamond was a rare exception in 1982), the relationship seemed to snap into place instantly – the perfect tension of bitter and sweet, raw emotion and architectonic subtlety, black coffee and cream.

The subsequent album, Painted From Memory, the first disc of this box, was no disappointment, and has only grown in stature since its release. What might have been a fleeting media opportunity in practice gave Elvis the perfect structure through which to channel the whole torrent of mixed emotion he was bearing amid the ruins of his 16-year marriage to Cate O’Riordan; what might have emerged as pugnacious, splenetic rock songs were instead perfectly framed in melodies and arrangements worthy of Sinatra or Dusty In Memphis.


“In the darkest place,” it begins, Elvis floating in with a tolling midnight bell and a chilly breeze of flute, “I know that is where you’ll find me”. This is torch song of rare brilliance, calling to mind Julie London, or Frank Sinatra in all his 3am desolation, as turned into magnificent cathedrals of erotic misery on In The Wee Small Hours and Where Are You?, albums on which he consoled and tortured himself with the memory of Ava Gardner. The central line to the whole album is one from the devastating “This House is Empty Now” – which as the sleevenotes explain, he got from his dad, advice to help him through long dark childhood nights: “Oh, If I could just become forgetful when the night seems endless / Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness?

In his autobiography, Elvis jokes that he kept a print of Dürer’s Melencolia on his music stand to cheer him up, and in truth it’s hard to hear a toe-tapping, singalong Broadway musical in these deep, dark songs. But nevertheless Chuck Lorre, the impresario behind sitcoms from Two And A Half Men to Big Bang Theory, must have heard something in that ballpark when he encouraged Elvis and Burt to write more songs and consider adapting the album for the stage – a prospect Elvis admits in his sleevenotes, he initially considered on the level of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night – only with less tap dancing.”

The musical remains unproduced, but the songs – as collected on the second disc here, Taken From Life – offer a fascinating new perspective on the collaboration. There are new voices: notably Audra Mae, Judy Garland’s great-great niece, on a sublime, spare version of “In the Darkest Place”; Jenni Muldaur, channelling something of Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” on the savage “Shameless”; and even Burt himself on the wistful “Lie Back And Think Of England”. There’s also a new range of dynamics, lightening the funereal pace elsewhere; “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?” has some of the deceptive grace of Dionne Warwick dipping a toe into Motown.

But the real find on this new disc, almost justifying the box on its own, is “Look Up Again” – a return to those desolate 3ams, a torch song played in reverse, where the “the pen drinks the ink from the page” and those farewell lines vanish. It’s further testament to the strength of this collaboration, amply bolstered by the live performances of Bacharach and Costello songs old and new on discs three and four. While so many artists of a certain age, from Rod to Bryan, end up resorting to the Classic American Songbook in their dotage in order to find complicated love songs for grown-ups, Elvis Costello has already added to that canon. “These are songs people will be listening to in 20 years,” the label boss told him when Painted From Memory was released, as though pre-consoling him for its lack of commercial appeal. But right now it feels like the life of these songs is only just beginning.