Farewell to Burt Bacharach

Still from the Burt Bacharach television special.

One of the last of the great Brill Building pop-song craftsmen has passed on. Burt Bacharach, who died on February 8, has often been unjustly dismissed as a facile mass producer of musical confections—and indeed many of his tunes seem like melodic cotton candy, as airy and ephemeral as they are sweetly addictive: for example, “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (redeemed by Hal David’s pungently rueful lyric about aspiration and failure in the sunny SoCal of the sixties), “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” and “Wives and Lovers” (the latter no doubt residing in the sexist-lyric Hall of Fame). In fact, Bacharach himself good-naturedly co-conspired in the misplaced snobbery that caricatures him as a Liberace-like lightweight with his 1997 cameo appearance in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

Those top-forty Bacharachian puffballs, however catchy and delightful, were indeed characteristic of Bacharach’s overall propensity for the breezy and superficial, a knack for the irresistible hook that left no mark, lacking the emotional and melodic depth of his notable Tin Pan Alley predecessors such as Rodgers, Kern, Gershwin, and Loesser. Yet even Bacharach’s lightest confections were often technical marvels, with frequently surprising chord changes, tonal colorations, and complex and shifting time signatures.

Bacharach best work featured not just such technical ingenuity but emotional weight and punch as well, approaching genius in its ability to combine seduction, pathos, and heartbreak in masterpieces such as “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “A House is Not a Home,” and “Don’t Make Me Over”—all originally conjured into unforgettable musical life, not coincidentally, by his indispensable vocal collaborator, Dionne Warwick. Then, in his later years, he scaled that height again in partnership with Elvis Costello on the moving “God Give Me Strength.” Each of these works seamlessly combines captivating melody with often daunting technical sophistication for example, Bacharach noted that “Anyone Who Had a Heart” “changes time signature constantly, 4/4 to 5/4, and a 7/8 bar at the end of the song on the turnaround. It wasn’t intentional, it was all just natural. That’s the way I felt it.”

Frank Zappa said of Bacharach’s work, “I really enjoyed the early compositions of David and Bacharach. I thought that they were so good because prior to that time there had been little of bi-tonal and poly-tonal harmonic implication in American pop music, and we are to thank them for providing that through those early Dionne Warwick recordings.” In the words of another luminary of America’s musical avant-garde, the saxophonist and composer John Zorn,“Bacharach’s songs explode the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be. Advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars. But he makes it all sound so natural you can’t get it out of your head or stop whistling it. Maddeningly complex, sometimes deceptively simple, these are more than just great pop songs: these are deep explorations of the materials of music and should be studied and treasured with as much care and diligence we accord any great works of art.”

Compare the least of the Bacharach oeuvre with the best of the current crop of pop songs, and you will sense how far and how sadly we have devolved not merely in the art of popular music but in the expressive potential of art as a whole.

William Kaufman is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He can be reached at kman484@earthlink.net.