Almost from the start, Elvis Costello has been the great bright hope of rock's new wave. A writer and performer possessed of intense energy and unflinching cynicism, he certainly was angry enough to smash through the complacency and hypocrisy that had infiltrated mainstream rock like a cancer. But what set him apart from the other young iconoclasts was that he also had enough ambition and vision to set up new values in place of the ones he had so gleefully toppled.
At first, he offered models built more or less directly along the lines of existing pop styles: revved-up pub rock for My Aim Is True; energetic, reductionist garage rock for This Year's Model; a cleverly abstracted version of Abba for Armed Forces; born-again Stax /Volt for Get Happy!!; even wryly sophisticated country & western for Almost Blue.
For all his fascination with form, however, it's interesting to note that the only style he attempted to take literally was C&W, and tellingly, that was his least successful album to date.
Imperial Bedroom, by contrast, is so saturated with stylistic diversity that is almost begs for comparison with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Surging, guitar-based rock sits cheek-by-jowl with busily melodic orchestral arrangements; melancholy cocktail-lounge balladry competes against soulful falsetto harmony vocals.
Yet as well as Mr. Costello's treatments work, he seems to treat them as an elaborate joke on the listener. Already, an alternate version of the mournful "Town Cryer" has been released in Britain, replacing the poignant strings with an uptempo disco arrangement. If playing a pop genre straight is a problem for him, playing one for laughs seems to be his favorite sport.
Oddly enough, the notion that pop styles are essentially disposable is precisely the point. What Mr. Costello is really saying is that the song's the thing, and the fact that any song could work as well in such contradictory versions bears this out. It also illustrates how far his writing has progressed.
As always, the songs are very busy lyrically, packed with puns and wordplay that treats meaning like a set of Chinese boxes. But for every delicious twist in the verse there is an equally sumptuous flourish in the melody, and that is Imperial Bedroom's ultimate triumph. Well-crafted as these 15 songs are, what you notice first and savor longest is how marvelously melodic they are. In large part, his secret lies not simply in writing memorable songs, which he does, but in using his arrangements to highlight and amplify each tune's compositional strengths.
In succeeding so well, and by making much achievement seem so effortless, Elvis Costello has lived up to his promise and then some. Imperial Bedroom is one of those rare albums which manages to be great without seeming oppressively so. All serious rock fans owe themselves a listen.