Burt Bacharach’s Distinctive Melodic Voice

    Burt Bacharach, who died on Wednesday, wrote in his heyday in the nineteen-sixties so many permanent hits that it’s hard to recall what an original songwriter he was. Alec Wilder, in his great book “American Popular Song,” though generally disapproving of post-1964 popular music, gave Bacharach credit for the “natural phrase,” irregular measures that followed their own logic rather than fitting inside a commercial straitjacket; and, among singers, the originality and difficulty of Bacharach’s off rhythms and broken phrases are legend—as was his insistence on getting it right with minimal “interpretation.” (He famously worked Cilla Black through some thirty full takes of a single song, “Alfie.”) Carole Bayer Sager, his onetime wife and frequent lyricist, in her memoir, recalls how utterly demanding he was about matching words precisely to his unalterable melodies, and how hard it could often be to set words to music so singular, asymmetrical, and perfect.

    Educated at McGill University, in Montreal—an excellent alma mater for all those trying to carry New York—he was part of that great generation of Brill Building songwriters of the fifties, searching for the single hit. (One of his early songs, “Baby, It’s You,” made a memorable appearance in John Lennon’s mouth on the first Beatles LP.) At a deeper level, in the twenty or so songs from the sixties that are by now as familiar to American ears as Gershwin—whom Bacharach in some ways resembles, for his restless rhythms and his sympathetic dialogue with the great Black musicians of his day—Bacharach carried on a kind of musical conversation with the great Motown producers of the era. Those songs, many recorded by Dionne Warwick to Bacharach’s great sour-apple-sounding arrangements, with a thumping electric bass, occupy a unique place between commercial pop and art-song intricacy. The words of Hal David, though often not of Sondheimian polish or literacy, served the music well, and on occasion could even touch the edge of poetry, as in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (“L.A. is a great big freeway / put a hundred down and buy a car.”)

    David and Bacharach, with Warwick as an incidental casualty, broke apart in 1973 with the car-crash production of a single Hollywood film. Woody Allen used to have on his book-jacket bio that he would do everything the same except see the musical version of “Lost Horizon,” and that movie—still so bad that, unlike “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar,” it has never had a rescue operation attempted on its behalf—remained the singular painful trauma in Bacharach’s career. A little unfairly; as Vincent Canby noted in his original summary in the Times, Bacharach’s music stood head and shoulders above the rest of the film, and the Fifth Dimension’s recording of “Living Together, Growing Together,” despite the slight tooth-on-edge piety of the lyrics, is worth hearing again.

    Having broken with his singer and his lyricist, Bacharach wandered in the wilderness. (There are heartbreaking stories in his memoir of the pains and pressures that he experienced with the daughter he had with Angie Dickinson, Nikki—a child Bacharach later claimed to have been on the spectrum at a time when autism and its related conditions were still painfully vague in definition.) He wrote a lot of songs after the breakup, and several hit ones, but never really wrote a successful show; “Promises, Promises,” his Broadway début, despite the delights of the score—“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”—doesn’t really hold up well on revival. Like his great French contemporary Michel Legrand, who also crossed over from a classical training to pop, Bacharach composed music that was essentially undramatic, delightful, and ecstatic in itself but not—as Randy Newman’s can be—inherently narrative or storytelling. He did make one great late statement, his album “Painted from Memory,” with Elvis Costello, in which Costello, surprisingly, sang Bacharach as well as anyone ever has—the vibrato and the darkness of his voice oddly complementing the complexities of Bacharach’s melodies, while the intelligence of Costello’s lyrics gave the music back its dignity. “Painted from Memory” and “This House Is Empty Now” and the haunting “In the Darkest Place” will live on as recordings.

    I got to meet Bacharach, once, when he was workshopping a new musical based on an O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Congratulating him on his body of work, one sensed a just detectable wince at hearing his sixties music praised all over again, in the predictable way of such things. The O. Henry musical, in the verdict given to pretty much every musical, “didn’t quite work,” but the music was so instantly identifiable as his as to be almost eerie. There’s a story about how when people heard Schubert’s unfinished symphony after his death they murmured “Schubert!” the moment they heard four bars, so distinctive was the sound. There are very few melodists who have that kind of authoritative clarity. Whereas Irving Berlin and Paul McCartney are fountains of music of many kinds, a smaller group make music that sounds like that of no one else on earth. Gershwin did that, and so did Burt Bacharach, and music of that sort never diminishes. ♦

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