Several people have noted that Elvis Costello's new album bears a resemblance to the work of Cole Porter, a compendium of compositions that are on the order of pop standards. At first listen that's what his new album, Imperial Bedroom, sounds like.
Gone are the book-filled verses and choruses hurled with venom at breakneck speed, each a three-minute microcosm of Costello's indictment. They've been replaced by highly-crafted songs replete with a well-planned structure not often found in rock. Many are in much slower tempos than the speed Costello formerly used, hence the comparison.
But that's where the similarities end. Costello's offerings are far too personal to allow molding by pop stylists.
Costello has elevated his songwriting and performing craft to such a level that the two are now inseparable, permanently fused together in the great tradition of rock classics like the Beatles' Abbey Road, an obvious influence here.
Previously Costello's voice rarely wavered from its vitriolic slur, which not incidentally made the lyrics that much harder to comprehend: "I'll do anything to confuse the enemy," he once sang. Here, Costello displays a stunning vocal diversity that is nearly virtuoso at times, adapting to the shifting styles of music that represent a brilliant advancement of his talent, evidence of the care and dedication that infused this project. Each song and performance builds upon the last, with a cumulative effect more powerful and frightening than any previous effort.
Partly that's because for the first time the lyrics aren't hidden behind organ swells in the mix of the music, a vindictive cat-and-mouse game Costello used to play. The words are way out front, carrying the melody often in counterpoint to the keyboards and guitar lines.
And the very few words that remain indecipherable can be found on the inner sleeve. The lyrics to all 15 songs are printed there, about 200 lines, covering both sides! Is this really Elvis Costello?
Yes it is. And for the first time, now that we can understand all of the words, he's also letting us have a glimpse at his heart.
For the first five years of his recording career, Costello's alienation fueled itself as his anger and rage infused his fans. Any reaction is better than none but that accusatory finger kept inquirers away, never allowing anybody to get close to him.
And when he called Ray Charles "an ignorant blind nigger" in an attempt to end an argument, his image as rock's bitter young man was sealed.
Two years ago, Trust tried to open the door, as its title might indicate, and Almost Blue, while seriously flawed, demonstrated that Costello could embrace something with an emotion other than hate.
With Imperial Bedroom, he lets us to know that he too is vulnerable, yearning with unfulfilled desires, as full of faults as those he accuses and that venom isn't the only way to handle it.
"Maybe you don't believe my heart's in the right place / Why don't you take a good look at my face," Costello sings in "Town Cryer," the album closer.
"So what if this is a man's world / I just wanna be a kid about it," he offers in "Kid About It," using his clever twists for once not to indict but to reveal, the words escaping a breathy whisper.
And consider this example: "I'm just a mere shadow of my former selfishness... All I ever wanted was just to fall into your human hands."
Is this the same man who once intoned "Lip service is all you'll ever get from me?"
You bet. And the music is as intelligently refined as the lyrics. Torch songs, sambas, jazz influences, country and a little blues infuse the songs, setting each in its own elegant portal in Costello's bedroom.
His aim has never been truer.