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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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