Thanks to the immense, enduring body of sophisticated pop songs he created with lyricist Hal David in the '60s, Burt Bacharach has credibility. His elegant, meticulously crafted compositions, with odd time signatures and daring melodic leaps, were fertile ground for David's smart, sensitive writing, mostly about love. The pop landscape since the '60s has been enriched by their work.
As for currency, Bacharach has always had loads of it, first in the '60s as the Handsome Swinger married to the Sexy Star (Angie Dickinson), and again in the '90s, in cameos as himself in the "Austin Powers" films, which brought his music and bachelor-pad cool to a whole new audience.
Though others have always been the best interpreters of this material, Bacharach made his debut as a recording artist in 1966 with the mostly instrumental "Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits." But he hadn't made an album since 1979's "Woman," an ambitious but mostly ignored collection of jazzlike orchestra music performed by the Houston Symphony.
Now, at 77, he's released "At This Time." Most of the 11 tracks are languid, elaborate instrumental suites veering between urbane pop and smooth jazz. They're spiced with occasional vocals by a mixture of special guests and studio singers. Some vocals are of minimal duration: The entire lyric of "Fade Away" consists of "Things fade away / then it's over / That's what they say."
The credit on "Fade Away" is "music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach." Six decades on, the master of melody is making his debut as a lyricist, writing eight of the album's songs with Tonio K. (the two first worked together on Ron Isley's 2003 album, "Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach," on which 11 standards were augmented by two new songs). Bacharach is also a late-blooming protest writer, despite a songbook notoriously light on that front: "I Say a Little Prayer" and "Windows of the World," both responses to the Vietnam War, are so because of Hal David's words, not Bacharach's melodies. Now, he's apparently bothered by the state of a world that needs more than love, sweet love.
The album's only agitated cut is "Who Are These People?," an expression of frustration with political leaders and the war in Iraq featuring an appropriately tortured vocal by Elvis Costello. He and Bacharach teamed up on the film "Grace of My Heart." The movie's brilliant centerpiece, "God Give Me Strength," led to 1998's critically acclaimed Bacharach/Costello collaboration, "Painted From Memory." Sadly, the streak ends here, with Costello merely mouthing such banal lyrics as "Who are these people telling us lies / and how did these people get control of our lives? / And who'll stop the violence, because it's out of control / Make 'em stop."
Mostly, Bacharach sounds nostalgic, and clumsily so on the opener, "Please Explain." Over a spare, softly funky rhythm bed provided by D12's Denoun Porter, slick studio vocalists opine, "There was a song I remember / said what the world needs now . . . Where is the love, where did it go / who broke our hearts, 'cause we need to know." One must assume that if Burt Bacharach had anything to say lyrically, he would have said it long before now, so credit for such lyrics, though shared, probably tilts toward Tonio K., who is no Hal David.
Case in point: "Where Did It Go?," featuring what is only Bacharach's second lead vocal on a studio recording since 1974 (the other came on the Isley album). His weak, gravelly whisper has not improved with age, and as Bacharach goes on about the dangers of the modern world and the legacy he's leaving his children, a wash of strings and a lulling chorale almost drown the mundane musings.
There are several cameos. Gauzy trumpeter Chris Botti appears on "In Our Time" and "Dreams," both featuring the type of airy, elegant melodies that Bacharach is famous for. Rufus Wainwright makes a (very late) appearance in "Go Ask Shakespeare," which would have benefited from bardic counsel. That song is one of three incorporating drum and bass loops donated a few years ago by Dr. Dre, a potentially fascinating collaboration that never panned out. Sadly, they are Dre Lite and not particularly interesting or inspiring.
The gleam of "At This Time" suggests that Bacharach's skills as arranger, orchestrator and conductor are undiminished, but there are no songs here likely to polish his legend.