Cut-price popster or noble sentamentalist? A beginner's guide to Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach’s songs have an inconvenient habit of catching even the most committed cynic unawares and leaving them – about three minutes later – blubbing like the mother of the bride. How does he do it?

Another Tear Falls. Burt Bacharach’s songs have an inconvenient habit of catching even the most committed cynic unawares and leaving them – about three minutes later – blubbing like the mother of the bride. How does he do this? If there was ever a body of work to which Noel Coward’s withering “extraordinary how potent cheap music is” seemed to apply, it is that of Burt Bacharach. But sentimentality, and the sentimental in art, is not merely matter of cut-price emotional simulation. At its best, what Bacharach does belongs to a more noble tradition.

Sentimentality used to denote emotional awareness and sensitivity until the word became associated with the mawkish. The ugly side of sentimentality is a self-deception, individual and collective, caused by anxiety and a longing for conformity. Oscar Wilde called a sentimentalist “one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”, which now sounds as much a prophesy of our culture as a biting fin de siècle observation.

Bacharach’s songs – stretching back to his earliest hits in 1957 – exist on the surface tension of sentimentality, as if the merest misjudgment would see them lose their footing and drown. But what is so unnerving about listening to Bacharach is that while you are consistently moved by his music you are also wholly conscious of its emotional triggers, to the point where it feels like you are being manipulated, even fooled. Perhaps he is so good he can make you question the nature of reality.

Emotions may be pushed and pulled by social convention but they are not inorganic. This music is akin to the scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault says to Rick: “As I suspected, you are a rank sentimentalist.” The line plays with the ironic gap between the audience’s prejudice about sentimentality and Rick’s selfless, brave and sincere actions. Sometimes soft sentiment can harden into an almost palpable truth. This is what happens with Bacharach.

His output, incorporating the lyrics of his great partner Hal David, used to be measured against rock or more modish pop, with the implication that it was something pejoratively mainstream. Thankfully, this is less common now. (The irony is that as popular culture becomes less and less “rebellious” – as the word was understood by generations of post-war teenagers – so the idea of a well-groomed, well-tailored artist like Bacharach becomes more and more fashionable.) But he and David were certainly operating within a tradition of unashamedly commercial creativity and their links to an artisanal songwriting lineage can still lead to lazy assumptions about the depth and breadth of their work.

What defines this music is the marriage of Bacharach’s bold romantic sensibility to David’s knack of condensing complex ideas into laconic everyday poetry. It is not melodramatic. It is, in fact, truly unorthodox against the standards by which it is judged. Critics may call it easy listening, but it is not easy playing (or singing).

Bacharach and David’s best songs, written between 1963-69, fall into two main categories. (I am excluding the enjoyable but somewhat silly knockabouts such as What’s New Pussycat.) The first is the baroque love songs including Anyone Who Had A Heart, A House Is Not A Home, Walk On By, Promises, Promises and This Guy’s In Love With You.

In this group Bacharach always lets the melody dictate the tempo and this lends many of the songs a volatile irregularity. He said in 1970: “What I hear is pure melody. No beat. I never write at the piano. I never even orchestrate at the piano except to check.” He also admits, despite his technical skill as an arranger, that he worked out the time signatures only after he had composed the bulk of the tune. In Anyone Who Had A Heart the tempo moves back and forth from 5/4 to 4/4 at the behest of the melody. It even switches to 7/8 to create the sense that the climactic exhortation – “take me in his arms and always love me, why won’t you?” – is tripping over itself with desperation. With Bacharach the tune is always suggesting meanings of its own, increasing its potency and ability to steer the subconscious.

There are similar twists and turns in A House Is Not A Home. This time the lyrics are those of an English ballad (including internal rhyme) – “when I climb the stairs and turn the key, oh please be there still in love with me”– and they could have been written by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Marvell or Betjeman.

Musically – again, here is where you almost resent him for leading you on – A House Is Not A Home is drenched in seventh chords, particularly major sevenths, which as even the most cockamamie songwriter will tell you is like pouring sugar on to the keyboard. Major sevenths are the musical fast lane to romantic affectation. So there is the suspicion that Bacharach is using a cheap trick, except, as ever with him, his tricks are more original than most. The switches from minor to major sevenths are signals of emotional change, in the most obvious case the incredible third section that rises suddenly with the word “suddenly”. As it fades out, A House Is Not A Home feels more vital, more robust – less sentimental – than when it began.

Promises, Promises (the title song from the musical adaptation of The Apartment) is an ingenious union of theme, phrasing and score. Here the conviction of the narrator to make a new start is captured in Bacharach’s most complex song. Shifting metres, huge leaps of pitch (mortals should not apply to sing it), brutal accenting and vocal gear changes reflect not only a character yearning for freedom, but the exact moment when she makes her break: a moment of wild and understandably confused excitement.

The singer begins Promises, Promises on percussive eighth notes in 3/4-time then in a single phrase changes to quarter notes in 4/4, then quarter notes in 3/4. And that is just the first verse, except that it can hardly be called a verse since the structure is so odd and the melody so seemingly out of touch with the tempo that is creates a syncopation that feels like riding a pogo stick on a tightrope. Similarly, in the bridge that builds to the climactic line and ends on the wildly sustained “yes, love”, the singer must skip through three bars that switch from 3/4 to 4/4 to 6/4. Bacharach is as demanding on the singer as he is generous to the listener.

The second category of songs is the understated, melancholic sketches, including Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, Do You Know The Way To San Jose?, Message to Michael, One Less Bell To Answer as well as the impersonal – almost political – What The World Needs Now and The Windows Of The World, in which the lyrics pull Bacharach’s lush chords in an unexpectedly civic direction.

Do You Know The Way To San Jose? and Message To Michael have more in common with the down-at-heel dramas of Ray Davies than the construction-line compositions with which Bacharach is often associated. The Kinks’ sentimentality is rightly lauded as sincere and witty and many of David’s lyrics convey no less subtle a sensibility – “He sings each night in some café/In his quest to find wealth and fame, I hear Michael has gone and changed his name”. The despondency is heightened not by an obviously “sad” arrangement, but by juxtaposing it with latin rhythms (Bacharach favoured Mexican and Brazilian styles, particularly bossa nova). The percussion shuffles along, often out of step with the phrasing, creating an eerie sense of emptiness.

These songs are a clear rebuttal of the prejudice against Bacharach. They express feelings of resignation and regret – even underwhelming failure. They are not factitious and do not demand a cod emotional response; they are truly songs of experience. As for his personal commitment to his art it would be best to let him explain: “I’ve got to get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and write music. Or improvise, or make contact. Touch music, touch it.”

The lyric Bacharach always speaks of as his favourite is Alfie, a song that encapsulates all the varieties and tangents of his and David’s art. It is personal yet public; it revolves around ideas of romance, identity and possibly the deepest expression of philosophical ambiguity in pop music. Alfie begins with a list of rhetorical questions to draw you in, mirrored by a corresponding series of sevenths and ninth chords, many of which contain an extra minor note to emphasise the yearning quality. As with A House Is Not A Home, the song explodes after a tentative opening, moving upwards and upwards before falling away again to an uncertain murmur. The final run of chords drifts away from the unresolved sound of a diminished E, leaving an invitation to continue wondering.

Years after the dissolution of his partnership with David (the death knell being the distressing failure of the musical remake of Lost Horizon in 1973) Bacharach won a third Oscar for Arthur’s Theme in 1982. This was a belated coda to his golden years, though the lyrics by his third wife, Carol Bayer Sager, and the production values of that particular era create an admittedly dated sound. Underneath the schmaltz Bacharach composed a song about the joy of falling in love and made it sound like a disaster waiting to happen. Even the opening run around a D minor is reminiscent of a Jewish folk lament. If it is sentimental, it is a very odd kind.

One of the other reasons for the songs’ safe passage through the crashing rocks of sentimentality is their brevity. Unlike a mawkish novel or painting, a three-minute tune, however sophisticated, does not have time to develop into a smothering mass of fraudulent pathos. Their immediacy is, in part, their salvation.

Ultimately, what the music and lyrics convey is not teenage emotion – infatuation or solipsistic longing – but something entirely adult. And with maturity those emotions become deeper but more brittle. They become desperation, disappointment and the quiet white noise of melancholy. They become unavoidably real. That is no mean feat – just ask Schubert, Porter or Simon. These songs are accessible and profitable, yet esoteric and at times almost gnomic – an unresolved puzzle.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a little cry to Alfie or A House Is Not A Home. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are sentimentalist, but it does mean you are alive.

Burt Bacharach after receiving the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2012. Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images.

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain