It has taken us eight albums to discover t he truth about Elvis Costello — that under his dark sunglasses and cold persona he is a true romantic. On Imperial Bedroom, his newest and most impressive release. Costello sings about marriage. love. alcoholism. and the need to communicate.
Imperial Bedroom is especially satisfying in the wake of last year's Almost Blue, which was Costello's non-original country album. Costello is far more convincing singing his own material, and the country style songs on Imperial Bedroom are vastly superior to anything on Almost Blue. One of the songs on Imperial Bedroom is entitled "Almost Blue," and it is, well, almost perfect. Over a sparse arrangement, Costello's voice is used as a very effective, and emotional, instrument. "Almost Blue" is a very quiet song: you can hear Bruce Thomas' fingers sliding up and down the neck of his guitar.
The other country-influenced songs are also outstanding. "Shabby Doll" is perhaps the album's most exciting vocal, and it showcases Costello's unique phrasing. It seems like Costello never sings a line the same way twice; he is able to draw many meanings out of lyrics by twisting his elocution. "Boy with A Problem," (which was co-written by Chris Difford of Squeeze), is a painfully slow, very powerful song about a repentant alcoholic.
Part of what makes Imperial Bedroom so remarkable is the degree to which Costello has succeeded in synthesizing modern country and rock music. Costello has taken some of the more common themes of country songs, such as failed marriages, and written about them in a different context. Although Imperial Bedroomis not a country album, it is not rock and roll either. Imperial Bedroom sounds nothing like, say, This Year's Model; the overall mood is much quieter. Although some of the edge may have dropped the music. the lyrics are sharper than ever.
Imperial Bedroom is the first album with which Costello has included a lyric sheet. The lyric sheet does indeed have the lyrics. but with no punctuation: not even the breaks between songs are marked. Although at first this seemed to be a nuisance, it proved to be a necessity — Costello punctuates his songs with his music, and with his masterful phrasing. The construction of Costello's songs is totally original; he rarely writes verse-chorus-verse type songs. Rather he keeps the listeners on their toes; one never knows what is coming next. Many of the songs have multiple tempo changes, sometimes creating almost a song-within-a-song" feeling.
As a songwriter. Costello is currently without equal. His selection of words is always impeccable, and his wordplay is wonderful. Lines such as "He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge" (from "Man Out Of Time"), or "They're so teddy bear tender and tragically hip" (from "Town Cryer") are well worth the price of the album. However, the lyrics can not be truly appreciated without hearing the music. In many of these songs. the music tells as much as the lyric.
Imperial Bedroom is a triumph. I can not remember the last new album that stands up to repeated listening so well. It is a very dense and complex work, and it succeeds on every level. Imperial Bedroom is a masterpiece, from a man who seems to produce only masterpieces. Long Live Costello!