Imperial Bedroom is Elvis Costello's most complex album, bath musically and lyrically, revealing an attention to detail not found in his earlier or subsequent work. The album's 15 songs feature both the familiar theme of domestic (dis)harmony, and the clever wordplay which have become Costello trademarks. Here, Elvis does not aim for the top 40, as he did with Punch the Clock or Goodbye Cruel World. and the album is better for it. Instead, Elvis follows his own peculiar muse and produces a record that is catchy on its own terms.
Costello's ten year career has been dotted with excursions into different styles of music (new wave, rhythm & blues, country, and straight pop) with production playing an important role in determining the overall sound.
On Imperial Bedroom the production chores are handled by former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick who worked on some of the Beatles more intricate work, including Sgt. Pepper. While it would be unfair to classify this album as simply "Beatle-esque", the term does give some indication of approach. Emerick comes fully equipped with an assortment of studio effects and a flair for the eccentric. Vocals and instrumentation are often double and triple tracked, echoed and distorted, in order to allow Elvis to sing two lead vocals as well as background, and to give the music the feeling of paranoia promised by the lyrics.
The orchestrations are provided courtesy of Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve. On the songs which feature arrangements ("And in Every Home", "Pidgin English" and "Town Cryer") Nieve uses a small ensemble of strings, brass and woodwinds, in the style of chamber music, to give the songs a feeling of intimacy. But it is Nieve's inventive keyboard work through. out (whether it be on organ, harpsichord, accordian, or especially piano) which really brings the album to life. Nieve has an almost uncanny empathy for Costello's music.
For Costello's part, he is both vocally and lyrically up to the high standards set by the music. Here, Elvis sings with a new found subtlety and assurance (i.e. he doesn't whine as much). That's not to suggest that his subject matter has changed. Costello is, after all, pop music's Woody Allen; you always get the sense that each excursion into the studio is like a trip to the analyst. Imperial Bedroom is no exception; here Elvis's preoccupation with painful relationships has become a has matured. Although Costello still criticizes women, he's now just as likely to blame the men.
In "Shabby Doll" for instance, Elvis provides a refreshing twist furnishing the song with a male slut (now if only my Webster's dictionary would acknowledge that sluts are not strictly a female phenomena). Rest assured, guys may be sluts too: "he's the tired toy that everyone's enjoyed... he's just a shabby doll."
Elvis is able to assume the blame again in "Human Hands": "Oh darling how I miss you, I'm just a mere shadow of my former selfishness, I crave the silhouette of your kiss." Even though Costello rarely (never?) supplies a happy ending at least on Imperial Bedroom he is able to provide a sense of balance to the proceedings.
In the end Costello suggests that relationships are, by their very nature, painful. In one of the album's most effective ballads "Kid About It" Elvis reflects, "we fight so frail, making love tooth and nail" as if the two were inseparable. He makes the reasoning more explicit on the album's final cut, the beautiful piano tinged "Town Cryer", when he suggests that relationships are built on an uneasy dilemma, that is, they are both painful and, at the same time, irresistible. "Love and unhappiness go arm in arm, long suffering friends of your fatal charm." Not a particularly encouraging sentiment but with music this compelling I'm willing to listen to Costello's side of the story.