Discussing Elvis Costello never seems to be a simple thing. I find that people either love the guy or they wish they had been Bonnie Bramlett when she punched him. I like Elvis Costello — I admit it. Granted I’m not a rabid devotee (although I’ve been known to foam at the mouth slightly during "Radio Radio") but I don’t think that one would have to be to enjoy his new album, Imperial Bedroom. It is his best album to date and without stretching the boundaries of credibility too far, one of the best albums of this year.
A friend of mine told me that he thought Costello was a little too clever for his own good. He claimed that he was so impressed by his own wordplay that it got in the way of him ever really saying anything — he became cute and witty instead of incisive and introspective, and that the music was just an excuse for him to get to sing his lyrics. O.K. fine. Everybody is entitled to their opinion (even if it is closeminded and preposterous). I refuse to defend things that I like simply because I don’t feel there’s a need to. But this album is an exception for me. Someone who goes out on the proverbial limb needs a little moral support now and then, With this album, Elvis Costello is bypassing the limb completely and diving for the best apple on the tree.
Just when everybody gets on to the synthesized band wagon, Elvis Costello decides to use a small orchestra for back up and when It looked like melody was about to be replaced by monotone drones Elvis Costello comes up with his prettiest (yes Elvis Costello con be pretty) music yet. For such a sweeping, sometimes soft sound, he’s never sounded gutsier.
From the opening cut "Beyond Belief" to the closing song "Town Cryer" Elvis and the Attractions take you on a tour through the Imperial Bedroom. It’s not a pretty place — full of jealousies, conceits, guilts and (of course) skeletons in the closet, "Tears Before Bedtime" seems to touch on all the themes in the album. The fight before going to bed then the awful feeling of lying there comatose with rage and guilt expecting a long sleepless night. "I sleep with my fists clenched tight / when I don’t lie awake all night / I guess time gave up the ghost too late / and the balance of our love / very soon turns to hate." Love is never simple and rarely pleasant. The difference here is that despite the wrangling, feelings do remain; scars show but at least the score is settled: "Darling your suspiciousness tortures me at night / but I can’t excuse the cruel words that I use whenever we fight." These songs don’t deal with the fight and the hurt — they deal with the healing or lack of it after the damage is done. There’s even a chance to start over — or at least try. "Almost Blue" is Costello’s prettiest and saddest song on this or any album. A whole world of feeling is summed up in the line "There’s a girl here and she’s almost you," It’s very easy to use cliches when speaking of love (or writing record reviews for that matter) but for eight albums in five years, Elvis Costello has always been startlingly original in expressing himself; this song is no exception. "Not all good things come to an end / It’s only a chosen few." Subtle and succinct, musically and lyrically, he somehow manages to say without literally saying it (blah) Love Hurts.
Nothing on the album prepares the listener for "Man out of Time." The tragicomic song "The Long Honeymoon" ends on a bittersweet note and careening out of nowhere comes a scratchy guitar accompanied by painful banshee yowls which then goes into a slow song about, well, ... a man out of time, Fortunately the song is long enough so that the listener has time to recuperate, then the song ends the way it starts. Needless to say, Elvis Costello has not lost his touch for, grabbing the listener by the ears and dragging him or her through their personal muck. It’s worth the trip.
The last song, "Town Cryer," is the perfect way to end this almost perfect album. This seems to be Costello’s manifesto. He pays homage of sorts to Elvis Presley. ("Other boys use the splendor of their trembling lip / They’re so teddy bear tender and tragically hip") stepping away from rock but at the same time not stepping too far away and ending up like "a little boy lost in a big man’s shirt." Such is the love he speaks of on this album. The need to break off is as strongly felt as the need to stick together. Costello treads the line between tough and tender, never missing a step or a strategy.
As always, the Attractions are fantastic getting more sophisticated with each album, (Steve Nieve on keyboards does the orchestra arrangements on this album.) Check out or should I say check into the Imperial Bedroom.