The Phantom Tollbooth

Painted from Memory
Artist: Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach
Label: Mercury
Time: 12 tracks/52:19 minutes

Collaborations can be hit and miss affairs, but these two men have long co-writing track records and deservedly strong reputations.  Bacharach is renowned for his luscious music, having penned the music for countless 'easy listening' standards; "I Say a Little Prayer," "24 Hours from Tulsa," "Close to You," "Anyone Who Had a Heart" --the list goes on and on. Costello is known primarily for his rich, dark, dense lyrics--full of imagery and often anything but easy listening.  This partnership had the potential to produce something really special.
Costello and Bacharach first wrote "God Give Me Strength," included here, for the Allison Anders's film, Grace of My Heart, earning a Grammy nomination in 1997.  The remaining eleven tracks were written between projects over the next two years.  The long gestation period shows in the meticulous crafting of both music and lyrics.
The music, as you might expect from Bacharach, is lush, passionate and cool by turns, carefully calculated but never cold. Bacharach is said to have regarded this album as the best of his career, and he's justified in having that opinion.  These melodies are unlikely to become unforgettable standards like his golden-era songs of the sixties--but they're by no means inferior.
Costello sings the lead vocals in all twelve songs, working under Bacharach's guidance.  He's revealed in interview that he learned some important lessons in how to use his voice to dramatic effect, and it's evident in these recordings that these lessons have been well learnt.  If when you think of Costello's singing you think of early recordings, like "Oliver's Army," then you're in for a very pleasant surprise here.  The man born Declan Aloysius MacManus has done a lot of maturing while you weren't looking.
Lyrics are primarily concerned with human relationships and, with the exception of "Such Unlikely Lovers," the breakdown of relationships. Costello has a talent for dealing with well-trodden subjects in new ways, using unexpected and quirky metaphors and situations, adding resonance by repeating themes--and this talent is amply showcased here.  Examples include "The Long Division," about a slow break-up caused by an affair:  

and in "Tears At the Birthday Party":  Although refreshingly unusual, the words are by no means impenetrable.  If you've ever had your heart broken, or can sympathise with those who have, these songs could make you cry.  If you haven't or you can't, one day you will.  You have been warned.
Albums that can touch the heart, challenge the mind and impress you with their pure craftsmanship are very rare.  Make space for this one in your collection.

By Daren Allder (1/29/99)