This review is definitely not for Elvis Costello fans. It would serve no purpose. These folks have already traded in their green wigs and hipster new-wave glasses just to raise the cash to buy Elvis Costello's new LP, Imperial Bedroom. Elvis devotees, like John Lennon fans who eagerly bought up the album with nothing but noise of John and Yoko screwing, will snatch up anything their hero releases. This is for the rest of the world, who maybe long ago decided that Elvis Costello just wasn't for them. Almost everyone who has listened to this new work agrees that Imperial Bedroom is one of the most significant albums to be released this year, and represents a new height of achievement and personal growth in the career of one of the most innovative and intelligent musicians to arrive on the generally stale, sterile music scene in recent years.
Imperial Bedroom marks a considerable change in tone and direction from previous Costello work. In 1977 the 22-year-old Costello burst onto the music scene with his masterpiece, My Aim is True. Although he rode the crest of the Punk/New Wave movement, Costello was clearly something more than his snotty-nosed cohorts. His pointed barbs and bitterness at society seemed much more authentic and sincere. Furthermore, he displayed — of all things for a New-Waver — an immense amount of talent. Costello expanded on this album with a number of following LP's which also combined Costello's scathing and hard-driving distinctive voice and intense guitar licks, with a vitriolic, piss-on-the-world attitude. The music was good but somehow it lacked the previous power and Costello's importance was gradually diminishing. Costello has reflected recently in a number of interviews that this was because he was becoming infatuated with his own angry, young man image and this stifled attempts to tap the full depth of his creativity. Last year, in an attempt to break away, Costello released a country album, the dubiously conceived Almost Blue. Imperial Bedroom returns to Costello's old style, but with a kind of mature sensitivity tempering the previous cynicism that will appeal far beyond Costello's former, somewhat limited audience.
The lyrics in Imperial Bedroom are Costello's best yet. They take the characteristic Costello wit and irony one step beyond brilliant. And they are delivered with much more subtlety than ever before. One detects almost a note of sympathy, as opposed to his former undiluted spite. Costello almost ends up sounding like a snide Bruce Springsteen in songs like "The Long Honeymoon." It is the fabulous range of Costello's voice that allows him to carry this transition off without sounding smarmy.
Consistent with this wider vocal range is the much richer orchestration on this album, a departure from Costello's previously sparse sound. Elvis' band, the Attractions, deserves much of the credit here, particularly keyboardist Steve Nieve. This change may be part of what is attracting new listeners to Costello's following. Imperial Bedroom has been doing well on the national record charts.
But don't be deceived. Although Costello's sound is getting smoother and more mainstream, he is not trying to sound like Journey. This is not namby-pamby music. When one first listens to Imperial Bedroom, one may likely be somewhat lukewarm about it. The record must be taken in a few times before it is fully appreciated. But by all means, give it this chance. Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom will someday be considered a classic.