God give me strength

Phil Ford

As I mentioned the other day, I just bought the Rhino Burt Bacharach compilation, The Look of Love. Why did I wait so long? Who knows — it's easy to take Bacharach for granted. I wasn't around for the days when Bacharach conjured an image of adulthood as playground. By the time I showed up his songs had been thoroughly assimilated into the ghastly netherworld of offices and waiting rooms — entirely the wrong kind of adulthood. But then again, I remember hearing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" when I was a kid (as a bumper for a local news broadcast after the weather, that kind of thing) and feeling a sudden and unexpected jab of melancholy. Where did that come from? It was easy to discount as a random effect—a loose piece of pop-cultural shrapnel hitting me in an unprotected spot. Somehow you can never really hear pop until its language has faded, until it no longer works as a quotidian ornament. Then you realize that your response wasn't random at all: the music was doing exactly what it was built to do.

The other day I was mopping the floor and playing the radio, and a Bacharach medley came on. Jeez, a medley — I hate medleys. But it occurs to me at some point that every phrase of these songs, even artlessly banged together in a "greatest hits" package, is a perfect little watchmaker's spring uncoiling with just the right force and velocity, clicking into place, tripping a catch, lifting a latch, cracking a door, opening out into some exact little place in the soul. And I thought, I need to listen to more of this.

So our old friend Robert Christgau calls this music "fancy hackwork." Hm. This describes Christgau's writing better than Bacharach's, I think. This music isn't coded with those conventional signifiers of noise and edge that might cohere in a rhetoric of authenticity; it's not the sort of thing that your standard-issue rock guy would normally like. Geoffrey O'Brien has a wonderful essay called "The Return of Burt Bacharach" in his collection Sonata for Jukebox that considers Bacharach in the context of the 1990s lounge revival and suggests that maybe this music got its belated due because it could plausibly form a "counter-counterculture" to rock:

Partly, the lounge phenomenon represents a generational shift conspiring to admit a range of musical effects that rock had excluded so as to preserve the purity of its identity. If one posits (as a worst-case scenario) a consciousness restricted to heavy metal, punk, and grunge, and then imagines the sudden infusion of, say, the "exotica" of Martin Denny, it becomes possible to grasp the revolutionary possibilities of tracks like "Stone God" or "Jungle River Boat." A new sensuous universe opens. Glissandos, bird calls, the undulation of waves and steel guitars: the massage music works its way into pressure points that garage rock failed to reach, an ethereal but efficiently lubricant patchouli oil. (p.12)

Then again, Martin Denny isn't Burt Bacharach. You can like Bacharach because you've decided you're part of the "cocktail nation" or something, but that reason would work equally well for Ray Conniff: within the generous boundaries of "lounge music," any music would do equally well. Explaining taste as a function of subcultural identity is a pretty blunt tool. It doesn't tell you much about what's special about Bacharach's songs, why they're different from anything Denny (say) might have written, and it doesn't suggest the possibility that you might love this music despite its lounge connotations, not because of them. It doesn't account for why Elvis Costello is singing Bacharach songs, or why those songs are still standing after all the years of abuse, including the grisly spectacle of Bacharach and Costello serenading an aroused Mike Myers in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. To understand all that, you need to read the rest of O'Brien's essay:

These intricate fetish-objects are about their own virtuosity, a virtuosity that delights in difficulty and intricacy, and delights even more in disguising them as just another pop tune. At his most characteristic Bacharach exudes a dry constructivist energy. A given song might evoke Stravinsky's Agon gone pop, or a fragment of Schoenberg deftly sweetened and cajoled, in extremis, back into conventional harmonic resolution. The drama—or the game—of a Bacharach melody is the risk that it might not circle back acceptably, might simply extend outward in a series of increasingly far-flung spirals. How far can he swim from shore before losing any hope of getting back? The melody branches at angles so abrupt that it threatens unbridgeable gaps, unacceptable dissonances: until, with the aplomb of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro, Bacharach abruptly brings it home by one deft shortcut or another. One can imagine him as a connoisseur of emotional precision, whose own feelings would be irrelevant, the embodiment of a dandyism capable nonetheless of appreciating the expression of true feeling. In that light the music would be all surface, but the most beautiful surface imaginable. (pp. 25-26)

Or perhaps these are just some very deep surfaces. 

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to God give me strength

  1. A given song might evoke Stravinsky’s Agon gone pop, or a fragment of Schoenberg deftly sweetened and cajoled, in extremis, back into conventional harmonic resolution. The drama—or the game—of a Bacharach melody is the risk that it might not circle back acceptably, might simply extend outward in a series of increasingly far-flung spirals.
    How I wish he’d given examples to help out us lay readers. The verse of “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” maybe?
    I wonder what effect Hal David’s lyrics have on how people think about his songs; right off the bat I don’t think of them as capital-C Clever, but I’ll have to walk around playing the songs in my head to think about it.
    Bacharach doesn’t make it easy for David:
    Dearest
    Darling
    I had to write to say that I won’t be home anymore

    There’s no place my amateur ear can hear to split up that last line.
    OTOH: She took me to a cafe/I asked her if she would stay/She said: /”Okay” “Okay” seems not appropriate to the gravity of the situation.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    Even John Zorn is in on the Bacharach lovin’: http://www.tzadik.com/index.php?catalog=7114-2
    The only one of those I’ve heard (Frith’s “Trains & Boats & Planes”, which is on one of his comp albums) is quite good.

  3. Wrongshore says:

    There’s something about hearing Elvis Costello’s collaborations with BB that make it clear just how complex and unintuitive his melodies are — how much more they are than the trappings of exotica, the glissandos, etc. I think part of it is that EC sings like he’s fought to do it well, to get past the post-punk sneer that served him so well for so long. You can taste the sweat; he’s really pushing his instrument on the soar of “God Give Me Strength”, and the weird line breaks (a la DP above) stand out so much more on “Toledo” than, say, on a Dionne Warwick track. (OK, maybe “Walk On By” isn’t so weird. It’s a hypothesis.)

  4. ben wolfson says:

    I dunno, I think they stand out ok when Warwick does “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”. Though my comparison class is miniscule.

  5. Peter (the Other) says:

    I treasure the memory, a cold night on Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, 1966, I was walking back and forth waiting for the doors of the Loeb Theater to open with some Shaw play expected. The patches of ice left over on the red brick side walk would be kicked and worried by my foot as I rolled the very idea of “A Message To Michael” around my mind.
    Bacharach is in my top five of all time. He seems to catch that bittersweet place, the sweet pain of the child’s tooth about to fall out pulling on its last few pieces of flesh. Hal David’s lyrics are god given too, although laughably banal on reading, there could be no better. As the Beatles, neither of them have done as well on their own.
    The song, lyrics and music in such service to each other,that it seems impossible to find a trace of which came first (even if we know). The sophistication of “Alfie” may only be matched by Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”. These works are of the pantheon.
    As much as I loved Costello’s first five albums, his voice has settled into an alarming foghorn, suitable for more industrial pursuits then music. His song writing has been distilled to two or three melodic ticks that he seems to keep hoping might be pretty again, if he can only find the right style to dress them in. His desecration of Bacharach is unforgivable, he should be banished, in spite of those first albums.
    But then, I am not opinionated.

  6. Daniel Wolf says:

    An interesting line to pursue is that of the influence of Bacharach’s teacher, Milhaud, on his work, and especially on the sometimes quirky phrasing and a harmonic practice featuring chords with added tones (a quality shared, incidentally, with Martin Denny’s music, which I certainly wouldn’t dismiss as only lounge music).

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