What up, pussycat?

Nov 23, 2005 at 12:00 am

What better gauge of our growing dissatisfaction with Bush country than witnessing America’s most beloved melody maker suddenly scribbling his own frustrations and personal politics down on a lyric sheet after more than a half-century of silence? And then having Sony tell him he’s gotta take the “F” word out.

Despite persistently being misidentified as easy-listening, Bacharach’s music has always been the polar opposite — edgy, highly emotional, at times uncomfortable and occasionally angry, a fervor that only his best collaborators matched in the word department. Perhaps the most outraged of all standards is “What the World Needs Now,” in which lyricist Hal David took the Lord to task for not providing us with as much love as he did places to hike and fish. With this album, Bacharach and lyric collaborator Tonio K hark back to that earlier lyric for a cycle of songs that’s already been described as an elder statesman’s What’s Going On. As in Marvin Gaye’s opus, Bacharach maintains a mood of quiet contemplation throughout, with a plea to save the children, more specifically his own children.

On “Where Did It Go,” Bacharach imbues the melody with a sadness that’s too real to be notated on sheet music, as if he’s thinking the words for the first time as they tumble out of him. “How did we wind up in this place instead?” he wonders as a dissonant piano chord underlines his disgust. “Is it really gone?”

On “Who Are These People,” he rails at the neo-cons who keep lying to us “even pretending to pray and getting away with it.” Elvis Costello guests here, and while his tendency to shoot for the least accessible notes in his range for dramatic effect has become commonplace, here it could just be overcompensation for the aforementioned excised “F” word. Besides, he has to compete with Bacharach’s most ominous orchestration since his incidental score for Lost Horizon.

In contrast, Rufus Wainwright’s understated appearance on the coda of “Go Ask Shakespeare” has a calming effect that the remainder of the album rides out on, one in which even an instrumental called “Danger” seems like an answer to the questions that dominate the first half of the album.

Despite the serious tone of this largely orchestral album, the appearance of trademark Bacharach instrumentation from tack piano, flugelhorn, electric piano, triangle, wind chimes and even vintage Moog — mixed with R&B touches like Dr. Dre drum loops and lite jazz solos — suggest a comfortable lightheartedness with a sound Bacharach’s work hasn’t had since his days at A&M. We just hope he’s sitting down with a cool drink when he discovers that Sony/BMG saddled his first record in decades with copy-protection software that’s pissing off consumers, causing retailers to recall albums and leaving fans’ home computers open to hackers. Guess what the world needs now is better firewall protection too.

Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].