Taking Liberties

Elvis Costello's recent collaboration with Burt Bacharach restores order to his maddening decade

The upheaval with Warner Bros. obscured the fact that Costello's post-Juliet Letters work was actually pretty strong. Brutal Youth was uneven, but at least half of it ranked with Costello's finest songwriting. Kojak Variety was an indulgence, but a vastly superior indulgence to Costello's 1981 album of country covers, Almost Blue. Even better than those records was All This Useless Beauty, a record whose concept promised little, but whose execution made it possibly Costello's least-appreciated gem. In particular, "You Bowed Down" (written for ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn), "Distorted Angel" and "Poor Fractured Atlas" were beautifully rendered art-pop songs that made a subtle but unmistakable point: This man was such a gifted tunesmith that he'd given away songs that others would kill for.

So, in light of all this, Costello's brilliant 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (his first for Mercury), is not necessarily such a shocking comeback. Costello's never lacked for good songs, but what Painted From Memory has that the Warner Bros. releases lacked is a cohesiveness and a consistently sympathetic musical vision.

Costello once observed that collaborative songwriting tends not to result in personal revelation, but Painted From Memory certainly feels like it comes from a place very deep within Costello. The majestic melodies and sharply observed details of songs like "Tears at the Birthday Party" ("What if we never learn how to behave/I did something and you never forgave me") and "I Still Have That Other Girl" inspire some of Costello's best-ever singing: subtle and controlled, with much more effective and economical employment of the pseudo-operatic flourishes that weighed down The Juliet Letters.

In fact, Painted From Memory feels a bit like the song cycle The Juliet Letters wanted to be. Songs comment upon each other and follow the emotional arc of a failed relationship. It reflects an ambition that few songwriters would even dare show these days. As he did with McCartney a decade earlier, Costello encourages Bacharach to revisit his trademark motifs, and generally succeeds, with the exception of a couple of Al Jarreau-ish tunes that recall Bacharach's limp '80s hits.

While few could ever deny Costello's intelligence and musical ingenuity, some infidels have persistently complained that something was missing, an intangible that all the greats have. Two years ago, in The Irish Times, Paddy McAloon put his finger on this line of thinking, when he wrote, "I don't find him very natural. There isn't grace there that I see in people who would be considered less in such elevated company. I like to hear grace in music. Irving Berlin had it. Paul McCartney has it."

Painted From Memory might not be Costello's best album--it would be hard to match classics like Imperial Bedroom or Get Happy!!--but it might mark the point where even people like McAloon have to lay down their arms. With Painted From Memory, Costello unquestionably achieves that rarest of musical zones: a state of grace.

Elvis Costello is scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 6, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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