Painted From Memory–An Exercise in Saudade

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is the song that introduced me to the very weird combination of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello.   Say what you want to about the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, but the soundtrack is outstanding.  I must have fallen down a pre-wikipedia rabbit hole (and in the days of dial up, that was a commitment) to find out more about this seemingly unholy amalgamation of musical styles and decades.  

I knew Burt Bacharach’s music–he had written for the Carpenters and his songs for Dione Warwick are legendary.  His music was on the regular rotation on the easy listening radio station I would listen to to unwind.   However, in full transparency, I did not know who Elvis Costello was, I had heard the name, but was not familiar with his music.  I have always liked the mixing of genres and the blending of musical styles to create new music.   

Somehow, the song “God Give Me Strength” entered my listening sphere.  This was in the days before digital music–you could download music from Napster and Limewire, but Youtube and Spotify were definitely not a thing in 1998.  I soon discovered that Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello had recorded an album of songs that they co-wrote but were definitely in the Burt Bacharach style.   The album, Painted From Memory, reintroduced the music of Burt Bacharach to a new generation for the first time in 20 years.  I think it took an entire night for me to download the album from Napster, but that album has left an indelible mark on me.  

I had no idea that Costello’s background was in punk and British rock.  But, somehow, the combination of Bacharach’s schmaltzy melodies and Costello’s rough, yet strangely smooth tenor voice worked beautifully together.  They were able to create an album that resonates with a longing for past memories and for past and lost loves; fading memories and the regret for mistakes made.  

Technically, one of the things that stands out on this album is the phrasing of the lyrics and how those lyrics match up with the music.  Often, lyrics are written as poetry–with a specific rhyme scheme and rhythm.  None of the songs on this album follow that traditional method.  Each of these songs are as if they are the words spilling from a letter written to a (ex)lover.  They don’t follow a specific rhyme scheme, they don’t follow a regular pattern or rhythm.  They are words that just tumble out of the writer’s heart.  

The arc of the songs portray longing, desire and even a little bit of pain.  It is reminiscent of the portuguese word saudadesThere is not an equal word in English for saudade.  It is best characterized as a deep longing for something from the past.  It is more profound than nostalgia–nostalgia can be defined as a “wistful longing of the past.”  Saudades goes beyond wistful and is drenched in the soul.  

Every song on this album has that same feeling of saudade–I still have that other girl in my head, this house is empty now, tears at a birthday party, painted from memory.  However, it is the last song that wrenches every emotion out of Costello.  The first line of  “God Give Me Strength” is 

Now I have nothing.  

The last 11 songs have dealt with anguish, longing, and faults that go both ways–this last song is the final appeal for a supernatural strength to make it to the next day.  

He continues: 

That song is sung out, this bell is rung out.  

He has done everything he knows to do to salvage this relationship. 

In the climax of the song, his sadness turns into desperation and the desire for her new love to hurt is painfully sung.   

As the music swells, he sings:  

I might as well wipe her from my memory

Fracture the spell as she becomes my enemy

Maybe I was washed out, like a lip-print on his shirt

See, I’m only human, I want him to hurt

Since I lost the power to pretend

That there could ever be a happy ending

So God give me strength

He has lost “the light he would bless.”  

He has given up. 

The music just slowly fades out.

 (grabs heart in emotional gasp)

I have been asking myself what is it about this album that makes it stand out and earn a place in my top 5 (+1) influential albums.  I have been able to condense my feelings down to 5 points:

  1. I love Burt Bacharach’s music.  
  1. I think that the emotional longing in Elvis Costello’s voice paired with Bacharach’s amazing melodies (I called them schmaltzy earlier–they can be both) makes this album stand out on a different emotional level than many other albums.  Even though they deal with lost love, they are not dirges, the melodies are bright yet soulful.  
  1. This album provides a comforting sense of familiarity.  Strangely, this is one of my goto albums when I need something familiar.  Not inasmuch a familiarity with the feelings being expressed, but a familiarity for the sentiment of longing.   I have never longed for lost love like what is sung about, but there are other things I have longed for.  
  1. There is something about the mellowness of the music–the muted horns, the steady percussion, the piano, the strings.  This is the familiar instrumentation used in the early days of Bacharach’s music–from the 60s and 70s, but with a modern sensibility.  
  1. I have tried to listen to Elvis Costello’s other music, but I just can’t get into it.  In a way,  I am glad about that.  It makes this album more special to me.  This Elvis Costello is the one that personifies saudades in a musical way.  

The next album is If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian

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