With the glut of pop records trying desperately to be anti-war these days, it was with considerable dubiousness that I cracked open Burt Bacharach's newest release At This Time. After all, this is the slick love-balladeer of the '60s, Mr. What-The-World-Needs-Now, right? And he's 77 years old for Christ's sake! What's he doing waving around a "No Blood For Oil" bumper sticker? But not only has Bacharach crafted a smooth, enjoyable, easy-listening experience, but his anti-war message is so minimalist and earnestly personal that you feel as if he's never even seen a bumper sticker.
Indeed, Bacharach's lyrics, co-written in most cases by '80s new-wave refugee Tonio K., are far from in your face. Bacharach keeps his vocals to a minimum and, though he gets help from Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright on a couple of tracks, most of his words end up in the mouths of backup singers. (This is just as well, since the lyrics, forthright as they are, aren't exactly Dylan-esque: "The Sun and the Moon are crying/The stars and our hearts/Crying/Please explain" lilts the opening track "Please Explain.")
Perhaps the most surprising thing about At This Time is Bacharach's collaboration with legendary hip-hop producer Dr. Dre. Bacharach is hyper-enthusiastic about it in the liner notes, and Dre does bring his usual bangin' funkitude to the tracks, but the album maintains a universally romantic, chill vibe, no matter what track you choose. In fact, At This Time would make a great make-out album, were it not for the weighty subject matter (and Bacharach's now rather Saturnine countenance staring back at you from the cover).
Some songs, like the Chris Botti-guested "Dreams" seem more repackaged and reworked than genuinely new. And some, like "Go Ask Shakespeare," featuring both Wainwright and Dre, are unfocused and end up working too hard lyrically: "Life's a miracle—or a foolish tale/I don't know, go ask Shakespeare." And I did, but the Cliff's Notes to Hamlet don't seem to say anything about George W. Bush. The problem lies not so much in getting the message across, because Bacharach does that well, but getting it across without being maudlin or lugubrious. Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't.
Ultimately, though, At This Time manages to succeed because it's so solid musically. For all that Columbia's PR people are making of Bacharach's original lyrics, this album is best when it's cruising wordlessly along—horns, drums, bass, and keyboard. Like many records, it shouldn't have to be more than what it is: the chillest anti-war album of the year.