Some enticing news broke in Costelloland last week, with the release of the February 2023 issue of Uncut and a short preview item about a four-disc set anticipated next year, Songs of Bacharach and Costello. As EC says in the preview:
It's Painted From Memory and Taken From Life, which is a collection of songs that Burt and I wrote over the last 15 years for a proposed Painted From Memory musical. So you'll hear other people singing a couple of those original songs, but also a bunch of songs that have never been heard before. We've compiled them with a couple of the songs from Look Now and some recordings that were piano/voice explorations of what the songs would sound like if they were sung by other people. We've put them all together to create an impression of what it would have been like to have that score. There's another disc of live performances of Painted From Memory songs, mostly with Steve Nieve and myself, a couple of them orchestral. Finally, a whole album of Bacharach/David songs, which I thought would be fun to include. This is a love letter to Burt.
We’ve talked about the Costello/Bacharach collaboration already a few times, and today’s song is another example of the gorgeous economy they both found when writing together.
“The Long Division” has that most elusive and necessary of things, a brilliant metaphor. You can write songs about anything, and you can write love songs about anything too, but to be able to capture real feelings in an image or idea that sums it up better than a thousand lyrics ever could…that is the dream of anyone who’s ever sat down with a guitar and a pen to make something out of thin air.
If you’ve read the song title, you’ve already spotted it–grade-school math as metaphor for the loss and betrayal of finding out your lover loves another. The metaphor isn’t belabored; there’s not a verse about a teacher at a chalkboard or punching numbers into a calculator. It’s really there in two lines from the pre-chorus:
Can it be so hard to calculate?
When three goes into two
There's nothing left over
I wouldn’t say that Hal David, Bacharach’s most famous and successful lyricist, was big on these crafty little metaphors. But he knew the value of a single brilliant idea that he could pour all the feeling of a love song into. We’ve talked about “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” a great example–it’s approached from a few different angles but the core thought is simple–how could anyone with a heart be so dismissive of the heart of another? If you know how to feel love, how could you possibly deny it from another?
That one couplet above, “When three goes into two/there’s nothing left over,” just reverberates throughout “The Long Division.” Costello and Bacharach are capturing a crushing moment in the final days of a relationship; you can see it as math, but it’s the remainder that’s heartbreaking. It’s metaphor that’s clear, cutting and expressive.
Listen to “The Long Division” on the streaming service of your choice.
I have a new Christmas song! In my “free” time, I like to write and record songs. You can listen to my first-ever holiday tune, “Slow Dancing (At The Christmas Party),” for free on Bandcamp or wherever you get your tunes!
Fascinated to hear what a "Painted From Memory" musical might sound like! I enjoyed your song and your voice, Matt!🎄Nice job!
You keep reminding me I stopped listening to Elvis Costello way too early Matt!
PS Attaching a link to my own latest post, as EC gets a mention (albeit a brief one). https://challenge69.substack.com/p/on-the-first-day-of-mavericks