Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – ‘Painted From Memory’

My new car journey to work was at best, just under an hour. That meant I could listen to an album going to work, then another coming home. For a good few weeks in the Spring of ’99 I’d play an album mornings and evenings, no other album got a look in. That album was Painted From Memory by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. At 52 minutes it was tailor-made for my commute.

Now, I was a big fan of Elvis. From his classic singles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, through to Spike and Brutal Youth in the ‘90s I loved his passion, his attitude and acutely culture-referenced songwriting. Burt Bacharach is quite simply one of the best songwriters of all-time. I Say A Little Prayer, This Guys In Love With You, Walk On By, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, Anyone Who Had A Heart… with Hal David he produced a legendary back catalogue, with Dionne Warwick being the main beneficiary of their combined brilliance.

On first listen Painted From Memory sounds like it could be Burt Bacharach songs sung by Elvis Costello, as the romantic nature of many of the lyrics appear fit Bacharach’s usual style. But it most definitely isn’t. Both lyrics and music are co-credited and for me it just enhanced my love of Elvis by a sizeable notch or two.

Elvis’ usual vocal style is strained, and when singing such emotive songs of love and loss that strain is intensified, and almost all of the time that works beautifully. On the very odd occasion a sweeter, Dionne Warwicker voice would smooth and sooth over the exemplary strings, gentle horns and perfect orchestration, but then when Elvis pleads: “Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness” on the beautifully sad This House Is Empty Now, it hits hard.

I Still Have That Other Girl is a crooner’s delight and Such Unlikely Lovers is just a gem, but nothing on the twelve tracks is less than exquisite, musicality wrapped around stunning songwriting and vocals. Commissioned for a film in ‘96 God Give Me Strength was the start of this perfect collaboration, with Elvis writing in his 2015 autobiography, “To have written a song like “God Give Me Strength” and simply stopped would have been ridiculous…” Another gorgeous song of a love lost, with clear roads it met with the end of my journey, the album seeing me home feeling somehow warmer, calmer and better with the world.

Mercury Rev – ‘Deserter’s Songs’

I must’ve done an okay job in Penzance because a request to return nearer home and to a bigger shop was granted. Fareham was over an hours drive from home and turnover was five times what it was in Penzance. I had a challenge and my work cut out, but I was back home. At the tail end of ’98 I had new colleagues, so new inspirations and new music. The first that grabbed me and sucked me in deep was the voluptuous Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev.

The album certainly has musical highs and lows, but the highs hit such incredible heavenly heights that the occasional and unnecessary musical interludes are easily forgiven. Jonathan Donahue’s alto tone matches Neil Young’s in its forlorn yet hopeful fragility, croaked over romantic, dreamlike tales and never better than in the luscious opener, Holes. A grand statement of intent, it was followed by a flow of lush orchestration, full of peaks and troughs, complementing Donahue’s exquisitely frail vocals.

Opus 40 is a work of art. The orchestrated crescendo that builds up to Tears in waves, minds on fire / Nights alone by your side” is euphoric, before the dreamy Floyd-esque outro. Deserter’s Songs has many glorious peaks, the highest of which might just be the immense Goddess On A Highway, unbelievably written some ten years earlier when Donahue was a part of The Flaming Lips. The production, as with the whole album is perfection, peaking for the ecstatic, repeated chorus.

“And I know it ain’t gonna last
And I know it ain’t gonna last
When I see your eyes arrive
They explode like two bugs on glass.”

On the back laborious Britpop and the rise of what to me was nauseating nu-metal in the late ‘90s, Deserter’s Songs sound was a dark but beautiful breath of fresh air. The album catapulted Mercury Rev from relative obscurity to worldwide recognition, and rightly so. The album’s grand, psychedelic and symphonic sound seemed to act as a catalyst for the likes of Grandaddy and particularly The Flaming Lips who themselves matched and then surpassed the Rev’s critical acclaim with their next three rapturous albums. Deserter’s Songs came out of nowhere but was not a one-off, with follow up All Is Dream coming very close to matching its brilliance.