|Burt Bacharach - At This TIme|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 01 November 2005|
I knew going in this was going to be a different piece of music to review, but I had no idea it would also be difficult. C’mon, it’s Burt Bacharach, one of the most familiar forms in popular music for the last 50 years. There’s probably no one reading this who couldn’t tick off 10 of his hits (he’s had 52 Top 40s) without even taking a breath (hint: start with the Dionne Warwick catalogue).
But the man so well known for his music is getting attention for this album because it is the first time, in a career stretching back to Marlene Dietrich in the ‘50s-‘60s (pianist, arranger, bandleader), that he has also written the words. On all those many huge hits it is his music, his arrangements, but the words mostly of longtime partner Hal David, sometimes Carole Bayer Sager (wife #3), and recently a couple of other people, notably Elvis Costello on 1998’s Painted from Memory. You may know Burt Bacharach from his appearances in all three Austin Powers movies; the producers claim his music was the very inspiration for AP. You may know Burt from his film score work (he’s got three Oscars to keep his many Grammys company), launched through wife #2, actress Angie Dickinson. But the Bacharach of At This Time is not someone you know.
On the cover of the first album in 26 years released under his own name, we see a tousle-haired, half-smiling Burt in a sweatsuit, a broad clue that it’s time for something completely different, because it’s rare to see him photographed in anything but a tuxedo. At 77, you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Bacharach announce, “You know, it’s been six decades, I’ve done a lot, I’m going to retire and enjoy my kids and my uncountable wealth and all the tributes bound to come my way.” But who would’ve expected him to decide he had something so important to say that it was finally time for him to be the wordsmith as well as the tunesmith and to grab ‘80s New Waver Tonio K as his unlikely lyric partner, to spend months with bass and drum loops from Dr. Dre (whom he admires immensely), Denaun Porter and Prinz Board of the Black Eyed Peas and finally, painstakingly build songs around those beats that still sound undeniably Bacharach and, of all people, to jump ahead of the legions of self-proclaimed socially conscious, already-angry young rock stars and come out with an album that lyrically rips the White House a new orifice, despairs about the state of urban violence and where civilization is ultimately headed, and on a personal level darkly declares “Things never change/Things fall apart/Life breaks your heart,” “Things fade away/Then it’s over,” asks “Where is the love/Where did it go?” and says ... “I’ll never understand love/I’ll never get it.”
Huh?? Burt Bacharach invented love, didn’t he?
You could dismiss it as the Mark Twain syndrome – aging iconic artist approaches the end of his life bereft of hope because it seems nothing in the world has changed from his youth full of promise, and the world he’s leaving to his children is uglier than the one he came into. But my cousin Mark kept his miserable discourses a secret and they weren’t published until 50 years after his death. Bacharach has promoted this for all his reputation is worth. He’s out there.
"People ask why a man who has been known for writing love songs all of his life is suddenly rocking the boat," Bacharach said. "I had to do it. This is very personal to me, and this is the most passionate album I have ever made. I had to express myself, not only musically but lyrically. It was time for me to ask, 'Who are these people who are taking control of our lives and how do we stop the violence?' I've got two little kids and a 19-year-old son and I wonder what they're going to do with their lives. It's so personal to me that I even decided to do some of the singing. This is dedicated to my kids and your kids."
Unfortunately, though perhaps to be expected because this is his very first foray into the world of letters, Burt’s content does not match the heft of Twain’s. But his sincerity seems authentic. He’s got little to gain career-wise from this bold shift, and in fact states he has already lost exceptionally lucrative performance contracts because of it. It’s possible that sunset ruminations about his legacy prompted the move (Sir Paul went a little bit crazy and tried to change everything to “McCartney-Lennon”), and that had to enter in, but since he has so much more to lose than gain by calling the President a liar in a country where nearly 40 percent of the people still think George is doin’ a helluva job, that wouldn’t be playing the odds.
So that’s where I give him all the props. Sure, we expect Bruce to speak out, Dylan built a career on it, you can always count on Neil Young. After all these years even the Rolling corporate Stones finally decided to use their first protest song ever to slap the neo-cons, but seriously, with all that’s going down in this country and in the world, where are the voices? Isn’t the silence deafening? The film community has been much more responsive, and considering how long it takes to get a movie made as opposed to writing a song for your next album, it’s shameful. So it’s all the more dramatic, and impactful, that the gentle unheard voice of the King of Love Songs is the one raised in angry accusation.
I’m amazed that some have chastised Bacharach for hurling toothless bromides and clichés. “Who are these people that keep telling us lies” seems pretty unvarnished to me. “Who are these people that destroy everything/And sell off the future/For whatever it brings” lacks no directness, nor gives any latitude. “Looks like the liars may inherit the earth/Even pretending to pray/And getting away with it” – whoa! – throws the (Good) book at ‘em, fighting hellfire with fire. Admittedly, all these words come from the most in-your-face song on the disc, “Who Are These People?,” and it’s given a forceful, seemingly heartfelt rendering by Elvis. “Where Did It Go?” is personalized social commentary, as Burt recounts his New York boyhood riding the subways without any fear, and he makes it intimate by mentioning the ages of his three children still at home, telling us he worries all the time about their future, “’cause nobody is safe these days.”
But the best song is “Go Ask Shakespeare,” a bleak survey of the state of the world which holds out hope for the redemptive power of love, but only faintly. Rufus Wainwright, whose unflinching nasality sometimes puts me off, is absolutely perfect for this song. He’s the new Dionne Warwick. The rest of the album’s lyrics basically deal with the lost power of love, but are really not that far off from a lot of Burt’s career work.
I’ve always held that the music is paramount, and if your words are the most important part, write a poem or a short story, not an album. But it’s a little different in this case, because it’s Bacharach. I had a lot of trouble coming to grips with the music on At This Time, because while it’s got 11 tracks they all flow together, and it shows up as a whole-cloth conceptual work, more an instrumental than a vocal album. (It just got the Grammy for Best Instrumental Pop Album, and the composer says his lyrics were used as “Greek chorus, interjections and vocal interruptions.”) Also, frankly, because I’ve always been on the fence of the camp that puts Bacharach’s music in the Easy Listening bin. But as I listened carefully and casually literally several dozen times, I changed my opinion completely from the first 10-20 spins, and grew to like all of it more and more. Usually the opposite happens, you OD on even your favorite music when you hear it too often, so this indicates to me that there’s some real substance, and quality, on a complex compositional level, that overrides the excesses in his arrangements that share elements with Muzak; even those godawful synth runs and bleeps are sounding more acceptable to me, and I’m no longer screaming at Chris Botti to lose the mute, just for a couple of bars.
So young musicians (those under 60), check this album, then check your songwriting chops, then do a gut check to see if you measure up to this septuagenarian rebel’s new work. What the world needs now – is more righteous anger and courage ala Burt Bacharach, and please make it sound gorgeous.
It’s what you’d expect from Bacharach, and it’s a departure too. He’s never experimented with hip hop beats before; except for film scores, he’s never lacked a featured vocalist to focus on; and he’s never had an “instrumental” album with so much singing on it (or a vocal album with such extended intros and outros). So considering all the elements he had to play to, one of his outstanding accomplishments was to make it so sonically cohesive. And lovely. A little too lovely – there is that toying at the edges of schlock in his arrangements that you have to ignore if you’re going to enjoy the whole of it. I have never understood why he couldn’t have synths and strings always with beauty and bite. Trumpets with mutes do have that mournful, far away quality, but they’re also corny, and irritating if overused. Since he always uses real strings (good on ya, Burt) he should just eliminate synthesizers altogether. It would do wonders for his sound. And I love the way he sometimes has a mass of strings crash as one, like some giant textured percussive bomp. More bomps, Burt.