Late at night in an English household, a young man and his wife are locked in a bitter quarrel. Having stumbled home drunk after a mysterious absence, he hurls one brutal insult after another. She responds in kind, reciting his worst faults and some ugly secrets. He slaps her. Through the tears, they exchange confused apologies. She forgives him but cannot conceal her fears. Exhausted from the fight, they fall asleep knowing that with the sunrise the struggle begins anew.
This is a recurring predicament in Imperial Bedroom, the brilliant and unsettling recent album by British rocker Elvis Costello. Autobiographical in ways its lyrics do not hide, the record portrays domestic life as an unstable balance of power in which conflict both threatens love and restores it. Coming after a period in which Costello's career was troubled and disoriented, Imperial Bedroom shows that he's again found his stride.
Elvis Costello, now twenty-seven, rose to stardom in the excitement of British punk and new-wave rock of the mid-1970s. To distinguish himself from the pack, the young singer abandoned his real name, Declan McManus, and took up the brash sobriquet "Elvis," a move that helped gain him initial attention in England and America. The new Elvis, totally unlike today's dime-store Presley imitators, delivered an array of well-crafted, fiercely-original tunes rooted in an encyclopedic command of both rock and pop traditions. His angry lyrics described the fantasies and frustrations of urban life, offering caustic insights with every turn of phrase. Within three years of his flashy debut, Costello's albums, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces, established him as the most capable rock performer of his generation, and perhaps the equal of any musician rock-and-roll has ever known.
At the decade's end, however, Costello's career faltered. His album sales never achieved the levels expected of top-rung stars. The widespread acclaim that had greeted his early work was diminished by some sour reviews of his albums Get Happy!! and Trust. On tour, he began to alienate audiences by playing extremely short sets and refusing encores. Worst of all, his reputation was stained by an unfortunate incident that occurred in 1979, after a concert in Columbus, Ohio. At a drinking bout with a number of faded, 1960s-vintage American rockers, a musician ridiculed British pop, saying it could never reach the soulful depth of black American performers such as Ray Charles. Costello, obviously in his cups, shouted back that Ray Charles was "a blind, ignorant nigger." The remark hit the music press and caused a storm of ill will.
The low point in Costello's artistic slide came in late 1981, with the release of Almost Blue, a collection of country-western songs that were lackadaisical to the point of torpor. He had long idolized country singers such as George Jones and Patsy Cline, and incorporated their styles in some of his work. Almost Blue was meant to be a tribute to Nashville, but the album's slapdash production showed self-indulgence, and suggested that Costello's music had lost any clear sense of direction.
Imperial Bedroom has quickly dispelled any such doubt. The album takes the enormous promise of his earlier songwriting and develops in ingenious new dimensions. His themes are now self-consciously adult in ways largely foreign to rock-and-roll. The posture of angry young man he had proudly cultivated has evolved into a stance more sympathetic to human failings. When he focuses on marriage on the rocks, he no longer jests at scars, but tries to communicate the pain. He sings of the tension between public and private life, noticing how the bottle becomes a refuge from hollow success. The album is haunted by the suspicion that a quality Costello previously valued most, ruthless honesty, may well be incompatible with two things he now desperately wants — love and family. He sings "To murder my love is a crime / But will you still love a man out of time?"
A languid ballad, "The Long Honeymoon," finds him in a mood of compassion, taking the viewpoint of a woman who's being cheated on. She waits at home, gradually losing confidence that her husband will return. News stories of murders of lonely women run through her mind. Whom can she turn to? Her friends are gone; the baby's too young to talk. "There's been a long honeymoon / She thought too late and spoke too soon / There's no money-back guarantee on future happiness." But the lyrics go beyond recognitions of loneliness and betrayal. At the song's climax, Costello identifies the sad truth of the woman's plight: "She never thought her love could be as strong as this," he moans over and over. He affection and devotion have a last become a curse.
Up to this point, Costello has been notoriously unforgiving of just about everybody, especially Elvis Costello. Triumphant in his quest for fame, he seems inclined to ease up a bit, find some perspective on it all. Now, in such songs as "Man Out Of Time" and "Town Cryer," he's able to acknowledge his own needs and weaknesses and find humor in them: "Isn't it a pity that you're going to get lost in a big man's shirt." He seems to have realized that before you can have sympathy for other people, you've got to find ways to be gentle to yourself.
None of this means that Costello has softened his language or relinquished his fascination with power. All of his records bombard the listener with images of crime, detectives, guns, murder, spying, military and paramilitary organizations, and the like. A number of cuts on Armed Forces make explicit observations on recent social struggles in Britain, but to hear a concern for national or international politics in Costello's words is to misunderstand their meaning. His vivid portraits of espionage, domination, and war are almost always metaphors to illuminate strife at the most intimate personal level. What Imperial Bedroom adds to his vision is a realization that when people fire their heavy artillery at one another, bloody casualties result. Salvos of naked truth must be followed by cease-fire and first aid; we have to show others that we care. Thus the words "P.S. I love you" recur throughout the album. Just as the original working title of Armed Forces was, appropriately, "Emotional Fascism," so the subtitle of Imperial Bedroom might well be "Detente."
The record repays many listenings. Its lyrics, clever rhyming couplets for the most part, generate elliptical puzzles one after another. What a tune seems to say on first hearing can be completely different from what it suggests twenty times later. Unlike Bob Dylan, many of whose rhymes turned out to be false-bottomed swindles (despite his fans' heroic efforts to endow them with meaning), Costello never plays with words simply for play's sake. There's always a particular effect that he wants to produce. Thus, the album's opening song tantalizes us with a brief fantasy of alcoholism: "This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel / So in this almost empty gin palace / Through a two-way looking glass you see your Alice."
The melodies and arrangements here are far more ambitious than anything Costello has previously attempted. His own rock trio, the Attractions, provides most of the backing, augmented by a symphony orchestra on certain cuts. The sound produced is intense, opaque, unrelenting. There are no breathing spaces, not even instrumental breaks between verses. As if to emphasize the record's density, the words to the songs are packed together tightly in strings of typewritten capital letters on the album's dust jacket, with no indication of where one tune ends and the next begins. To meet Imperial Bedroom — an extraordinarily long record by today's standards (almost fifty minutes on one LP) — on its own ground requires both commitment and stamina.
Noticing the sophistication of the compositions, some reviewers suggested that Costello might become the Cole Porter of the 1980s. It is true that the album owes a great deal to the last half-century of pop-song writing, not just rock-and-roll. Costello gladly admits his esteem for Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. "When people ask me to name a great song," he told one interviewer recently, "I mention something like 'Love For Sale' or 'Someone To Watch Over Me.' In the last twenty years or so, very few people have been up to that standard of lyric writing."
But that earlier generation of great songwriters assumed a world of urbane manners, refined sentiments, and polite sociability. Costello's lyrics point to double-dealing, raw sexuality, and danger at every turn: "I'm the oily slick on the windup world of the nervous tick / In a very fashionable hovel / I hang around dying to be tortured." In the temper of his tunes,
Costello is no Cole Porter.
An unfortunate fact about Costello's recent compositions is that he lacks a voice strong enough to do them justice. He makes good use of what he has, but his vocals are somewhat thin and raspy, even a little flat at times. The melodies he's writing now contain the kinds of elaborate twists and turns that normally would ideally require a singer with great range and power. But in a curious way the songs are tailored to his physical limitations and quirks of personality. The very strain in his voice expresses the agony of his message.
During his American concert tour last summer, Costello appeared every bit as generous and mature as the warmer moments on Imperial Bedroom indicate he can be. After several years during which he had refused to give interviews, he talked at length with reporters, revealing aspects of his life he had formerly kept hidden. He went out of his way to offer profuse, convincing apologies for the Ray Charles remark. His ease with himself and with those around him seemed almost too good to be true.
On stage, Costello obliged audiences by playing long sets filled with plenty of his older, hard-rocking numbers. Then, at carefully chosen moments, he introduced selections from Imperial Bedroom, songs that tend to alternate softer, slower passages with more standard rock flourishes. Using hand gestures to emphasize the lyrics, he tried to educate listeners to the texture of his recent compositions.
How far will Costello be able to take this new music and new persona before his audience gets restless? The new songs are already far more complicated and emotionally taxing than most rock fans are willing to abide. He risks losing the comfortable sinecure rock-and-roll has carved out for itself over the years — the continual repackaging of adolescent ideas, passions, and traumas. Rock performance is often an emblem of conservatism, a reluctance to explore new territory. Mick Jagger still blusters and prances around the stage like a twenty-year-old. The Grateful Dead seem willing to re-create the 1967 Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love until their fans keel over in nursing homes. If Costello continues to challenge rock-and-roll's unwritten code — "Thou shalt not grow up" — he may find himself making better and better music for fewer and fewer people.