Why Burt Bacharach Was the Greatest Romantic Songwriter of His Time

Burt Bacharach
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal

The way that some people remember seeing the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan,” I remember the first time I heard a Burt Bacharach song. I was eight years old and I watched Jackie DeShannon perform “What the World Needs Now Is Love” on our black-and-white TV set. I had never been spellbound like that. Right off, something in the lyrics got to me. “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” was an easy enough sentiment to take in, but it was the following line that etched itself on my childhood soul: “It’s the only thing… that there’s just too little of.” In the ’60s, it often seemed like everyone in the world was talking about love. The Beatles were avatars of love; they would soon come to tell us that all you needed was love. Yet here was a song, all about love — a dizzy, swooning homage to it — whose central declaration is that there still wasn’t enough of it.

That haunted me. It told me something: that love was the sister of loss. “What the World Needs Now,” with its slow percussive waltz rhythm and plangent staircase of major and minor chords, ascending into shimmering sevenths in the middle section (“Lord, we don’t need another mountain…”), was a love song about love: a celebration of it that also seemed to be gently weeping over our collective yearning for it. And if love was the thing there was just too little of, even in Burt Bacharach’s world, which was a place of staggering romantic devotion, then consider, for just a moment, how true that must be today, in our own world of online hookups and dating-as-shopping and postmodern cynicism. What the world needs now it may need even more than it did then.

The lyrics, of course, were written by Hal David. Yet it was Bacharach’s music that caressed them into a sublime statement. The winding melody (to quote Lydia Tár on Bach) seemed to be asking a question. The chords that created a veritable dialogue between major and minor — it was all so beautiful and wistful and tender, so delicate in its rapture, and so sad. So happy and sad at the same time. “What the World Needs Now” seemed to be saying: Love can save us, but who will save love?

The music of Burt Bacharach was like that. It beckoned, it soared, it lifted you up, yet it was rooted in a place of exquisite and gorgeous melancholy. Just listen to “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the 1962 song that was Dionne Warwick’s first Top 10 hit. It’s a song of absolute devotion rooted in absolute despair, sung by a woman whose love is so total that the man who won’t return it — who keeps betraying her — must not even have a heart. Yet the way Warwick sings it, and the way Bacharach composed it, her devotion will make up for his. This is no mere broken-heart song. It’s a boundless expression of love, a feeling that becomes a mythology.

As a composer, Bacharach straddled worlds in a way that made him a unique figure. He wrote pop songs that bounced their way onto the charts yet were comparable, in the bittersweet jazz-tinged candied bliss of their harmonic seduction, to the songs of George Gershwin. Working with Warwick and David, he was a three-minute poet of love as surely as the Beatles were. In 1969, the song he wrote for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” stopped that cheeky movie in its tracks and injected it with a note of ironic heartbreak that reconfigured how a song could define a movie. And one year later, in 1970, a song he’d composed back in 1963 that was newly recorded by the Carpenters, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” stopped America in its tracks. It answered the tumultuous political and erotic frenzy of the counterculture with a rapt gaze of adoration that tilted the whole mainstream culture in a new direction.

I had my own personal counterculture with Bacharach. Growing up on his music, I grooved, in the family car, to his ’60 hits — the Warwick songs (“Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” in its jaunty way, seemed as individual and almost confessional a statement of loneliness as any song I’d heard), and the one I often think of as his greatest, “The Look of Love,” which somehow, miraculously, expresses a core of melancholy not in the longing for love but in the very fulfillment of it. The forlorn beauty of that song, melting into a sunburst of ecstasy in the chorus, said that love, even fulfilled, is a step away from longing. I reveled in the melodies, the passion, the sound — the horns that were boppy and teasing, the strings and dreamy background choruses, the crashing-piano cataclysm of “What’s New Pussycat?”

But then I put Bacharach away and came around to him, with a different spirit, when I was in college in the late ’70s. In the house I shared with half a dozen friends, I was ritually chided for my fixation on Bacharach. But it had become a private obsession. Where my friends were mostly new wavers blasting the Clash and the Ramones, I would retreat into my room and curate my midnight Bacharach séance, sinking deep into his anthems of men letting down their guards, whether it was Herb Albert crooning “This Guy’s in Love with You” or Bacharach, an on and off vocalist, singing “Make It Easy on Yourself,” the world’s most anti-toxic breakup song. As I listened into the wee hours, I felt as if Burt was speaking directly to me.

Much has been made of Bacharach’s singular rhythms: the off-kilter time signatures that lent his melodies, for all their sweetness, a jagged spontaneous quality, the phrases etched like something out of a soft-rock Cubist painting. That off-the-beat Bacharach bop aspect is unmistakable — it was there even in the theme song he wrote for “The Blob” in 1958. But in his songs of romantic longing, those rhythms operated with a special fervor.

Pop music, in so many ways, has been the story of love compressed into radio ditties that are like ear-candy sonnets. And even as the first half of the 20th century gave us the indelible love songs of artists like Gershwin and Cole Porter, the second half was nothing less than a bounty of romantic searching. One thinks of the jangly sublimity of the Beatles, the delectable infectious passion of Motown, the operatic ardor of Phil Spector, the dance-club pining of ABBA, and on and on. Yet the sculpted perfection of those Bacharach melodies, folded around the disarming directness of David’s lyrics, achieved something singular. The duo’s confectionary pop songs made every line, every sentiment, seem a concrete and highly personalized distillation of the idealism of love. And it was the exquisite ache of the music that raised the stakes, that dramatized the sadness that love would rescue you from. They are, for me, some of the richest and more enraptured romantic songs of the 20th century.

As an adult who was lucky enough to find love, the Bacharach song I return to most often — I can never listen to it without feeling as if it’s my favorite song ever recorded — is Aretha Franklin’s majestic 1968 gospel-in-the-clouds version of “I Say a Little Prayer.” I can’t claim it’s more perfect than Warwick’s version. Yet Aretha, with her voice of awesome power, uses that voice to take a song of extraordinary vulnerability and transform it into a song of awesome faith. Bacharach’s recordings were famously controlled, but Aretha’s incantatory singing of the words “Forever” and “Together” is, for me, the fulfillment of Bacharach’s vision of what love is. There may be just too little of it. But that’s because it’s everything.

From Variety US