In case you missed his cameo in Austin Powers or his nationally televised tribute concert, Burt Bacharach is again in vogue; his opulent brand of Sixties-pop songwriting has found a new audience among swizzle-stick hipsters. Elvis Costello, on the other hand, has seen his chic factor drop to less than zero in recent years, in part because he keeps fluttering from genre to genre, collaborating with the likes of the Brodsky String Quartet and avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.
In Bacharach, Costello has found his most empathetic sidekick yet. The former’s arrangements for orchestra and rock combo (including longtime Costello keyboard player Steve Nieve) are typically suave, embellished with the kind of instrumental forget-me-nots that Babyface would die for. Bells chime in “The Sweetest Punch”; the horns say a little prayer in “Toledo.”
But the album ultimately turns on Costello’s voice. Bacharach’s tunes demand a certain effortlessness, and while the supper-club singer inside Costello has long yearned to break free, he’s not always smooth enough to pull off the traditional crooner approach. Costello’s vibrato-drenched baritone strains to spear high notes, and the soulless female backing vocals heighten the sense that this should have been Luther Vandross’ gig.
When he turns down the volume, Costello creates ideal moods for jilted lovers. His phrasing is tart, his tone quietly seething. The cheerful, trite “Such Unlikely Lovers” is out of place here, but self-mutilation burns through the exquisite orchestrations and subtle wordplay in “This House Is Empty Now” and “God Give Me Strength.” Thanks to Bacharach, Costello’s bile has never sounded so sweet.