The Look of Love Lost

Two new releases pit the new songs of Bacharach & Costello against the old classics of Bacharach & David

Lately the words "resurgence" and "Burt Bacharach" are finding their way into a lot of the same sentences. There's been an avalanche of press coverage on Bacharach and the stepped-up use of his songs in hit movies like Austin Powers, My Best Friend's Wedding, Forrest Gump and The First Wives Club, but if lucrative copyrights alone were enough to spark this kind of renewed appreciation, we'd be in the midst of a James "I Feel Good" Brown resurgence as well.

Others credit Gen X interest in Burt to the bachelor pad/cocktail music movement or else offer some glib, "kids dig him because Oasis does" rationale. In doing so, they grossly underestimate how timeless these songs actually are.

On an almost daily basis, Bacharach and his incomparable lyricist Hal David sat in a cubicle without a window and saw the outside world in intricate time signatures, diminished chord sequences, soaring melodies and thought-provoking prose that were anything but the hackwork most of their Brill Building brethren were churning out.

Taken instrumentally, Bacharach's music screams with passion. From the mightiest orchestral swell to the quietest keyboard glissando, you are always made to feel as if you're either about to be loved or about to be left. Whether it's that first glance or the last door slam is of little consequence. You feel a part of something. Something big.

As the perfect complement, Hal David brilliantly translated that big feeling into small words that carried a lot of weight. David was well into his 40s by the time the Summer of Love rolled around, but said way more about love in a lyric like "Alfie" than everyone under 30 trying his damnedest to pass for "groovy." And because neither he nor his partner let fashion do the dictation, their words and music seem even more magical and otherworldly in the '90s, where people beg off asking what the world needs now and tell you that the world just plain stinks.

Maybe a Burt resurgence is the first tangible evidence that even slackers need music that betrays the existence of love sweet love somewhere, that maybe a haunting melody is something to be savored, not just sampled in seven-second intervals. And there's something in a Burt revival for easily led easy-listening adults. If they would stop patronizing divas who record only threadbare material designed not to upstage their roller-coaster voices, maybe we'd hear songs instead of showcases on the radio. Let's only hope the radio that Elvis Costello once derided sides with him, if only to make good on his recent claim to Billboard that "Burt and I are here to kick Celine Dion's ass."

If you didn't know Rhino's The Look of Love--The Burt Bacharach Collection closed with "God Give Me Strength," Burt's unforgettable first collaboration with Costello, you could call this new three-CD boxed set the definitive but very finite collection of Burt's best-loved works, a cardboard tombstone for a once brilliant career. But this boxed set's different from all the others--not only does it point to the future, the future's already been shipped to a waiting world. Late September saw the release of Painted From Memory, the long-awaited Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach album. Not only does this masterfully melancholy long player take up where "God Give Me Strength" left off, it traces each lover's misstep that led up to it in a stirring song cycle of disengagement and longing that would've made a far better film than Grace of My Heart, the cheap melodrama that first brought Burt and Elvis together. Taken in tandem, both the Rhino set and the Costello album form a four-disc body of work that seismically captures the look of love and the lack thereof.

DISC ONE: Make It Easy on Yourself
The first thing you notice here is the persistent whistling. Tracks one and two, Marty Robbins' "The Story of My Life" and Perry Como's "Magic Moments," are plastered with whistling, a pop constant in the Leave It to Beaver era they were created in. While whistling isn't the best-known Bacharach trademark, it does turn up now and again in later works. The big difference is that whenever someone puts his lips together and blows on "Only Love Can Break a Heart," "This Guy's in Love With You," and especially the unappreciated Dionne Warwick single "Odds and Ends," it's the mark of isolation, resignation and uncertainty.

Not until Bacharach and David throw themselves into love-gone-irreversibly-wrong songs do they find their unique voice. Also, until the pair assume the arranging duties full-time, their work bears more of the imprint of its producers than its authors. Hired as an arranger by legendary R&B producers like Lieber and Stoller and Luther Dixon, Bacharach found himself surrounded with timpanis, strings, triangles, trumpets and background singer Dionne Warwick, all soon to be components of his sound.

It's rather telling that throughout this set, and especially Disc One, the most anguished pleas for love emanate from the male camp. First there's the amazing Gene Pitney, whose handkerchief was always at the ready to catch his daily deposits of grief. His string of hits is one mighty joyless jamboree, where "Only Love Can Break a Heart" was unfortunately a way of life. Rarely was there a song where Gene didn't sound as if he was seconds away from searing skin-graft pain. Alec Cumming's excellent annotations describe this particular Wall of Sound as "the Canyon of Doom," the darkest place from which the Drifters can beg "Please Stay" and Chuck Jackson can weep "I Wake Up Crying" and "Any Day Now" without a hint of shame. While most male singers of the day would've advised listeners that "a man ain't supposed to cry," Hal David's lyrics never made that judgment call, thus making him chief liberator of the weepin', sensitive man.

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