998's Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory was a project that should have worked, but tragically did not. It seemed like a sure thing, two pop music masters in a team up that ought to have been magic. Instead, the enterprise got stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning, engine roaring uselessly. There is an insistence on medium ballads or funeral march ballads, sadder-than-dead fish torch songs. There is merit to a good number of them, as Bacharach is the Beethoven of ageless heartache, but the melancholy turns into a stupefying torpor. It had been remarked on point that Bacharach found his perfect vocalist in Dionne Warwick, a singer with range, timing, and tone who could seamlessly negotiate the deceptively tricky turn -arounds in his melodies.
Not so with Costello, who overestimates his native skills to extend his vocal skills. He continually tries to hit the high notes at seemingly the same moment in each song, with his pitch being the equal of having a live magpie taped to your face. It's a horrible, piercing experience before long, and the rationale that it's a brave thing he's doing by using his limited apparatus for the lofty points on the sheet music won't cut ice. Plainly, he's trying too hard. Bacharach, I recall, wrote a good number of spry up-tempo songs as well, and had a sense of humor. Perhaps he felt he needed to get serious now that he was getting some serious attention from critics because the acclaimed Costello deigned to work with him. The album is dour, gloomy, utterly depressed eventually; it would have been best if they canned half the songs here and released only the truly memorable work. It would have been better if they remembered to bring their sense of humor to the sessions when they recorded this thing. The lack of more spritely paced songs--remember that Bacharach among other virtues had a genius for tempos and alterations of time signatures and keys-- and Costello's inadequate vocal range overwhelmed the bright spots with a sad, impressionistic murk. The main problem for many were the vocals--typical of the user reviews of Painted from Memory on Amazon's listing was that Bacharach was in excellent form, but EC dragged the material down. Perhaps someone can present us new versions of the best material with other singers who would be a better fit for the challenges the songs present.
Costello obviously wants to be a master of all styles of music because he loves, seemingly, every style that's ever been invented. His problem is that he nearly always seems eager to out do or improve on established genres, rather than truly adapt the motifs to his strengths as a songwriter. His output starting in the late eighties with Mighty Like a Rose became distressingly erratic. "Inconsistent" is too polite a word. He did sporadically bounce back with a strong release and solid songs, but his wild swerves to projects that turned out to be perfect messes--The Juliet Letters, The Delivery Man, Mighty Like a Rose, Kojak Variety--resulted in my lowering his stature in my personal canon of all-time greats. Once I thought he was the greatest rock poet, but I took that crown away from him and handed it over to Tom Waits, who had a brilliant career start to finish, all killer, no filler.
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