- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

What the world doesn’t need now is for Burt Bacharach to turn into Joan Baez.

Mr. Bacharach, he of the deceptively complicated “easy listening” hits that held the center through years of rapid change in popular music, drops the bomb on the Bush administration with his new release, “At This Time.”

The legendary composer has never seen fit to write the lyrics to his chart toppers, and after a few spins of “Time,” it’s pretty clear why. Rare is the songwriter, or the music for that matter, less suited to polemics.

Reading the lyrics of “At This Time” is like getting a lecture from a relative whose beer buzz isn’t doing anyone any good. He bemoans a world where “nobody is safe” but wraps the sentiment in cranky nostalgia.

The diatribe deepens on “Who Are These People?” with guest crooner Elvis Costello. The pair’s first collaboration, the sumptuous “God Give Me Strength,” hinted at the heights they potentially could climb, a promise mostly fulfilled on their subsequent album, “Painted From Memory.”

This seems like a sad bookend to their union, should it stop now.

It’s hard to conjure a more jarring experience than hearing those trademark Bacharach strings swelling to a crescendo — then giving way to an antiwar yelp.

“This stupid mess we’re in just keeps getting worse,” Mr. Costello sings, a line bereft of maturity or nuance.

Guest singer Rufus Wainwright fares better on “Go Ask Shakespeare,” in which the words draw parallels between the disappointments of modern times and a romance gone wrong.

Elsewhere on “Time,” Mr. Bacharach chips in some vocals, and his voice is even thinner than we remember. Perhaps he sought that wounded sound for “Where Did It Go,” a track mourning the loss of safety in society. He might have convinced us if not for the song’s inherent shallowness.

“At This Time” finds its groove whenever the voices fall away, yet it’s a far cry from Mr. Bacharach’s radio-friendly past.

The saxophones on “Is Love Enough” soothe, and the instrumental “In Our Time” purrs out of the speakers.

Mr. Bacharach’s latest wades through pleasant but forgettable horns and some ghostlike piano playing without denting our subconscious. We’re even treated to some drum loops cooked up by Dr. Dre, of all people, but beyond making for an odd, cross-generational pairing, the move is more gimmickry than rewarding.

Mr. Bacharach became an iconic figure in the music industry of the 1960s and ‘70s by sticking with his brand of lushly orchestrated middle-aged pop in serene defiance of rock’s growing dominance of an increasingly young market. He has never sounded more like an anachronism than in straining for contemporary relevance with “At This Time.”

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