The Meaning Behind “God Give Me Strength” by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach and the Movie that Birthed It

“God Give Me Strength” introduced the world to the musical partnership of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. That song would inspire an entire album of material, as well as various live performances by the two and other songs they would write together over the years.

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What was the meaning behind “God Give Me Strength?” What movie provided the impetus for its writing? And how did Costello and Bacharach come together to record it? Let’s look back at this showstopper of a ballad.

Saving “Grace”

The story of “God Give Me Strength” starts with the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. A kind of loose retelling of the Carole King story (ace songwriter becomes star artist in her own right), it included characters loosely based on Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. At one point, the Spector character financially backs a massive recording of a song written by the King character (played by Ileana Douglas), a la what the real Spector did for the Ike & Tina Turner song “River Deep – Mountain High.”

Costello and Bacharach were asked by the film’s music supervisor to write a song for this moment in the film. Costello got the ball rolling by writing the verse and main hook of what would become “God Give Me Strength,” and then faxing what he had written to Bacharach. In the liner notes to the compilation The Songs of Bacharach & Costello, Costello explained how Bacharach’s contributions transformed the track:

“The song now had true form; Burt had added an introductory melody that became the Flugel horn part, had stretched the melody of a couple of mid-verse phrases, making a longer, more graceful melody, and made a couple of minute but crucial note changes that seemed almost perverse at first hearing but quickly became impossible to shake until one could not hear the tune the way I had originally written it.”

The duo then came together in New York City to record the song, with Bacharach conducting the band, which included a string section and his trademark horns. The finished version of “God Give Me Strength” played over the end credits of Grace of My Heart and earned the pair a Grammy nomination.

Perhaps more important though, it sparked in Costello and Bacharach the desire to continue their collaboration. Who knew that New Wave’s verbose poet laureate would fit so well with the master of elegant classic pop music? Their 1998 album Painted from Memory, which included “God Give Me Strength” as the closing track, received universal acclaim.

The Meaning of “God Give Me Strength”

Like many of the songs Costello and Bacharach wrote together, “God Give Me Strength” focuses on the aftermath of thwarted love. Now I have nothing, so God give me strength, Costello sings in the very first line to set the somber table. His protagonist is desperately trying to hold it together, but getting lost in reveries about his ex only leads to letdowns: And I’m lost in imagining / Everything that kind of love is worth / As I tumble back down to the earth.

In the middle eight, as the melody rises to an emotional fever pitch, it’s revealed that another man has taken this girl away from him. I want him to hurt, Costello bellows at the top of his range in a stunning moment of honesty. The narrator then admits that he’s finally reached a point of no return: Since I lost the power to pretend / That there could ever be a happy ending.

She was the light that I’d bless, Costello concludes in the chorus. She took my last chance at happiness. “God Give Me Strength” is a towering evocation of heartbreak, capable of bringing even the jaded to tears. With the words of Elvis Costello tripping across the music of Burt Bacharach, how could it have been anything less?

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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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