Burt Bacharach (1928-2023)
The Look of Love
Burt Bacharach died yesterday. The amazing three disc Rhino Anthology of his work The Look of Love is listed as the 163rd best album of all time in my ebook, The Best Greatest Albums of All Time.
I thought I’d reprint my essay on the collection since a tribute seems in order. I’ve attached the entire book as epub and pdf to this post below the paywall for paid subscribers. Or it’s available here.
The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection
1998 (original tracks 1957-1996)
Burt Bacharach raised slumming to an art form. A sophisticated composer fascinated by the intricacies of jazz and the possibilities of tonal colors in small ensembles, he spent his career writing ephemeral pop hits for the most mainstream of mainstream performers—Tom Jones, Gene Pitney, Herb Alpert. Rhino’s massive three-CD, 75 song compilation, released in 1998, is hour after hour of dramatic strings surrounding soaring paeons to love and heartbreak, endlessly sinking into a milky sea of melodrama glop.
The glop, though, keeps winking at you, with a world-weary, unglop-like suavity. The perfect façade of Bacharach’s innocent songs are always peeling away to reveal world-weary cynicism and/or concupiscence. He’s the aural equivalent of Billy Wilder’s brightly earthy sex comedies, sun-dappled, horny, and knowing. The 1963 Gene Pitney hit, “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” see-saws exquisitely back and forth between triumphant Latin-tinged surge with horn flourishes and melancholy ballad throb, as Hal David’s lyrics tell the sad(?) story of a traveling man who abandons his wife on the spur of the moment for a woman he meets in a hotel. “I can never, never, never” he moans, as the music hits a false cadence. The narrator is trying to trick himself into believing he’s actually tormented, before the big finish with back up chorus declares, “go home again” like liberation.
And then there’s the marvelous David/Bacharach “Are You There (With Another Girl). Sung by Bacharach’s greatest collaborator, Dionne Warwick, the narrator in the song stands outside her boyfriend’s house and sees one too many silhouettes on the window shade. The vocal line rises up in an exulting spiral, “Love requires faith, I’ve got a lot of faith…but!” The last syllable hits like an offhand backhand, before Warwick drops to the bottom of her register again, innocence trying to wrestle cynicism back down from where its peaking in that window.
There are so many other highlights it’s impossible to list them all: Gene McDaniels’ “Tower of Strength,” with his growling sobbing vocal about how he’s nothing of the kind, as the honking trombone mocks him; Tom Jones’ heavy breathing hiccupping go-go grind encouraging men to lie to their sweethearts with starry-eyed calculating glockenspiel glissando; the late period 1981 Christopher Cross “Arthur’s Theme,” with the smooth jazz sax solo wistfully swaggering between the moon and New York City; Manfred Mann checking off syllables like he’s flipping through names in his little red book; Dusty Springfield sighing as she gives that bossa nova beat the look of love; Jerry Butler soulfully commiserating with the dissonant piano as it prepares to break up with him; Karen Carpenter still wanting to be close to you after one false endings, and yes, even after a second.
Not everything is equally great, but even the disappointments—like Herb Alpert’s altogether too fruity “Casino Royale” or Bobby Goldsboro’s too racist “Me Japanese Boy I Love You”—don’t seem out of place in a collection so attuned to the sweetness of disappointments and the disappointments of sweetness. “Weeks turn into years/how quick they pass/and all the stars/that never were/are parking cars and pumping gas,” Dionne Warwick sings with a transcendently sensuous clarity and swing over a stop-time organ-vamp. Bacharach and his collaborators make failure sound like sex and give joy the sting of failure.
Bacharach managed to keep making hits for four decades, but the 21st century pop emphasis on rhythm over melody and explicit over implicit sex isn’t very congenial to his aesthetic. He’s over 90 now, and while his songs still show up on movie soundtracks, his relevance has diminished rapidly even since the release of this compilation. But that’s okay. As Bacharach knew, nothing lingers quite like the knowledge that even the purest love will eventually get up, sigh, and to the sound of swirling strings, walk on by.
For paid subscribers, my book The Best Greatest Album of All Time Ever, from which this essay is taken, is available as a pdf download attached to this post. If you’d prefer another format, let me know in the comments and I’ll get it to you!