The Look of Love Lost
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.
At the same time, two of the most insensitive, pigheaded, male-chauvinistic lyrics David ever penned close out Disc One. "Wishin' and Hopin'" finds Dusty Springfield the unwitting Stepford girlfriend, ordering all girls within earshot to "wear your hair just for him, do the things he likes to do." And then there's "Wives and Lovers," where Jack Jones concurs that a house is not a home--it's a sex-slave camp where a working man has a moral obligation to commit adultery if his spouse sees him to the door with curlers in her hair.
Even for this leering, king-of-the-castle anthem, Jones is the worst kind of singer. He enunciates rather than emotes, reduces words to mere syllables and hits notes square on the head like he's going down a shopping list. In one of this collection's few questionable judgment calls, Jones' big hit was chosen over Dionne Warwick's lesser-known rendition, which had a way more sizzling Bacharach arrangement. But there's plenty of call for Dionne on what we might just want to title:
DISC TWO: Make Way for Dionne Warwick
Without a doubt, Dionne is the premier interpreter of Bacharach/David songs. "When you want a Bacharach/David song recorded, you've got to come to the source," she is quoted as saying, and who can argue? The source can pad her concerts with 30-minute medleys and still leave people rattling off Bacharach/David tunes she's left out. Even this set's inclusion of 17 Warwick performances doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the hits this winning trio racked up in 10 years' time. If Dionne's an extremely underrated vocalist, it's simply because she glides through the most difficult passages without the slightest hint of overexertion (check out "Land of Make Believe" or "Anyone Who Had a Heart" for that quickie demonstration). And although she falls victim to some of the most egregious lovers in all of popular song--witness "Odds and Ends," where her live-in partner leaves her alone with just a half-filled cup of coffee and an empty tube of toothpaste to remember him by--she manages to maintain her grace and control.
While Dionne's familiar hits abound on Disc Two, several of them are represented by other people like Cilla Black, Burt himself and Lou Johnson. Johnson is often referred to as the "male Dionne Warwick." One imagines it is because Bacharach and David set aside superlative first-run material for him ("Always Something There to Remind Me," "Reach Out for Me," "Kentucky Bluebird (Send a Message to Martha)," and that he evinced some of the same effortless yet soulful qualities as Dionne.
Unfortunately, he was also one of the unluckiest men in pop. Inexplicably, none of these songs reached anywhere near the top of the chart until they were covered later with identical arrangements by Warwick. Nor have any of these Johnson recordings seen the inside of a record store since they were first issued on singles and stuffed into paper sleeves, a sad fate this set happily overturns.
Perhaps Johnson's raspy quality revealed more heartache than audiences were ready to hear. His "Always Something There to Remind Me," which later became a hit for Sandie Shaw, R.B. Greaves and Naked Eyes in the '60s, '70s and '80s, respectively, has a sinister-sounding tag at the end that appears on none of the other versions. You hear Johnson stating emphatically "you'll always be a part of me" and "never gonna love another baby" in the same breath while encroaching dark strings hover overhead and the background singers continue to sha-dooby, oblivious to his pain.
Dionne graciously tells us in the accompanying text that it is she who was covering Lou and not the other way around. But you won't need a psychic friend to know what she was feeling when the shoe dropped on the other foot, when English birds Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black beat out Dionne on the U.K. hit parade with note-for-note copies of Warwick's recordings. One of Burt and Hal's best was "Alfie," which Cilla screeches Ethel Merman-style. It sounds less like an explanation of love's fickle ways and more like she's ordering poor Alf to take out the trash.
No danger of competing versions ever befell Jackie DeShannon. Originally meant for Gene Pitney, "What the World Needs Now" was passed over by Dionne because it sounded "too country." Bacharach gave it to DeShannon with the full Dionne treatment and, voilà, it was a monster! After that, Bacharach and David furnished DeShannon with a few more songs that made her sound like the female Gene Pitney, but because they're so unsettling and weird, they didn't find a massive audience. "A Lifetime of Loneliness," "Come and Get Me" and "So Long Johnny" have melodies that chromatically descend from major to minor, which scientists could probably prove make people feel bad. But at this stage of the game, Bacharach is taking exciting risks simply because he can, risks that seem like distant memories toward the end of . . .
DISC THREE: Check-Out Time
By this time, Bacharach becomes a star in his own right, recording a series of albums and TV specials. You hear his often-derided singing only once here on "Hasbrook Heights," but you also hear it in B.J. Thomas, who offered a more polished version of Bacharach's own vocal style. When you read that Bacharach wrote "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" with Dylan's phrasing in mind and offered it to him to record, it just seems like a ridiculous rumor, one that Burt vigorously denies. Yet when you hear B.J. singing the companion piece "Everybody's Out of Town," it's easier to recognize the Dylan influence in "Raindrops." The way B.J.'s voice goes up like a half-asked question at the end of lines like "sleepin' on the job" and "nothin' seems to fit"--it's as much Dylan as it is Bacharach.
Toward the end of Disc Three, you can feel the hits stop coming. Burt and Hal lose their magic touch somewhere in the middle of scoring the disastrous remake of the movie Lost Horizon in 1973. They compound their problems by having actors Liv Ullman and Peter "I'm Mad As Hell" Finch sing on the soundtrack. Worse, the score contains treacly, Sesame Street-type anthems like "Living Together, Growing Together," which appears here with the Fifth Dimension singing. And that's the last new Bacharach/David hit anyone hears. The team splits up, and whether you're ready for the '80s or not, the listener is forced to leap from the Me Decade to the arguably more selfish Us Decade.
The turnaround is more than a little jarring. That your ears must sonically adjust from Burt's lush, intricate orchestrations where he obsessed over every kielbasa or triangle part to crass Yamaha DX7s that dated records to the week they were issued is bad enough. But juxtaposing Hal David's brilliant prose against his successor, Carole Bayer Sager, is a no-win situation.
First of all, she was Bacharach's third wife. Think of how much compromising you have to do with the missus just to buy living-room furniture and you can imagine how compromised Burt must've been at those ivories. Only three songs herein represent their entire 10-year partnership (there is a God to give you strength after all, because Rhino left off "Heartlight" by Neil Diamond!). In commercial defense of those songs, all three were No. 1 hits, but it's as if the beautiful adventurous soul driven to write such universal masterpieces of longing as "24 Hours From Tulsa" and "Alfie" has been forever anesthetized in the dentist chair and forced to write songs Christopher Cross wouldn't have a hard time singing.
DISC FOUR: Painted From Memory
Reviewers still oblivious to Lou Johnson are likening Elvis Costello, Bacharach's latest collaborator and mouthpiece, to the male Dionne Warwick. If Dionne ever made a whole album of torch songs around "Walk On By" or "Are You There (With Another Girl)," this would appear to be its sequel, with all the apologies and the unremedied guilt from the other side of the door, letters never mailed from the dark end of the street.
You'll hear familiar Bacharach touches like flugelhorns and tack pianos, but unlike other return-to-active-duty albums like Roy Orbison's Dream Girl, John Fogerty's Centerfield or any Brian Wilson solo album, there are no deliberate pastiches of older songs dealt out to sucker you in. "This House Is Empty Now" might appear like it's gonna be another "A House Is Not a Home," but the two are worlds apart.
Brook Benton still had hope his love might return, still in love with him. Not only will that not happen to Elvis' protagonist, he's already obsessing over which friends will side with him in the split. In Hal David's lyrics, every action is of the moment, a breakup has either just occurred or a romance is just beginning. Painted From Memory is like a time-lapse movie where we get to see sorrow played out unrelieved for years after. The wife or lover he cheated on in "Toledo" has not only moved out, she's moved on to someone else. On "Tears at the Birthday Party," the twice-removed Elvis looks on at this new beau playing daddy with his kids and cries, "Now I see you share your cake with him/Unwrapping presents that I should've sent/Must I watch you?"
But Elvis recognizes the look of love when he sees it, too. What a thrill it is to hear Bacharach putting a live orchestra through its paces during the bridge, creating a busy city street with music.
"Though no one seems to notice as they hurry by/Ask me what I'm thinking and I won't deny it! I am bewildered," Costello exclaims on "Such Unlikely Lovers," with all the wonder and apprehension of someone about to lose control of his heart's internal functions. The resignation returns like a badly endorsed reality check on "My Thief" and just about every song thereafter. By the time he's pleading "God Give Me Strength," it's more because he wants his replacement rubbed out by the Almighty than because he cares about his own salvation.
While that might seem like a downcast ending, it's in the tradition of fine heartbreak albums like Sinatra's No One Cares and Only the Lonely, which were designed to help you remember the lost love you're powerless to forget. Like Sinatra, Elvis' heart will go on. But for Chrissakes, who wants to hear that?
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.