Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello: An Uncommon Bond

A new box set retraces the connection between the two pop auteurs

Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello (Image: UMe)

Like most of Elvis Costello’s more imaginative musical ventures — be it in the realms of classical, country, R&B or film —  his union with Burt Bacharach seemed, at least at first, to take him well beyond his wheelhouse.

For starters, there was more than a 25 year difference in age between the two. For another, Bacharach was an old school pop practitioner, while Costello’s music frequently teetered on the edge of angst and insurgence.

Nevertheless, when the pair first met in 1989, due to having found themselves ar the same recording studio, the bond between the two was firmly entrenched from the get-go. Although there was only a single album produced by their partnership, a wonderful work titled Painted From Memory, the pair continued to collaborate over the course of the next three decades. The full scope of their partnership is finally unveiled courtesy of a new two LP/four CD boxset that includes the original album, a heretofore unfinished project titled Taken From Life and additional material culled from Costello’s concert performances, in which he retraces the songs from the duo’s original album and also offers interpretation of classic songs from Bacharach’s iconic catalog.

Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello The Songs of Bacharach & Costello, UMe 2023

In truth, it’s a seamless fit. As Costello proved early on, in addition to his post punk rabble, he could also be a brazen balladeer, as songs such as “My Aim Is True,” “I’m In the Mood Again,”  “Shipbuilding” and “Ascension Day” seemed to prove from the very beginning. One suspects that he had a secret desire to be a contemporary crooner, given his seductive style and soulful sway.

In the booklet that accompanies the box, Costello says he was reared on Bacharach’s music through his early introduction to ‘50s MOR, although he also admits he was unaware at first of the person that penned the songs. Nevertheless, they became an indelible part of his musical mindset throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, and so it was only natural that in 1977, at the peak of his prowess, it was a Bacharach composition, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” that was Costello’s first ever cover of an outside individual that Costello. A second, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic “The Look of Love” quickly followed. 

When the two did connect, the chemistry seemed instantaneous, and indeed, in listening to the songs from the duo’s original sessions — “This House Is Empty Now,” “Painted From Memory” and “God Give Me Strength” in particular, it’s evident that Costello became a perfect foil for Bacharach’s wistful melodies, filling the role once occupied by Hal David and Carole Bayer Sager. Are they as flawless as Bacharach’s classic compositions? Perhaps not, but one can certainly credit Costello with showing due reverence for the Bacharach brand, especially in terms of mood, melody and the articulate arrangements. So too, these songs don’t have the benefit of being radio staples — at least not yet — so that familiarity factor is not yet ingrained.


VIDEO: Elvis unboxes The Songs of Bacharach & Costello 

Nevertheless, one can credit Costello with conforming to Bacharach’s signature style. The bond between the two became increasingly obvious. And while Costello admits to some initial trepidation, he credits Bacharach with being open, gracious and willing to work intently in tandem. As a result, it becomes clear that both men collaborated with equal intent, building the songs from rudimentary song sketches and offering each other input as needed. What resulted was a practical partnership that benefitted from a commitment that was borne from polish and prowess. 

The partnership evolved — not only in terms of songs composed with soundtracks in mind, but also in terms of the inspiration it offered Costello while continuing his outside endeavors, specifically those that allowed him to glean orchestral arrangements that are as much a hallmark of Bacharach’s music as the songs themselves. Moreover, as Costello matures — he does bear senior status now that he’s reached age 68 — he can claim to possess the attributes needed to write anthems for the ages, at least in terms of songs that stand the test of time. 

In that regard, Costello can also boast the benefits of being mentored by one of pop’s elder statesmen. And given his proven ability to morph and adapt, those lessons will likely linger for the remainder of Costello’s career.  


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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