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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?

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

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.