With his latest album Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello provides us with a mildly surprising, though not at all illogical, continuation of his musical development.
His first album, My Aim Is True, showed Costello trying his hand at numerous musical genres, including reggae, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues. He abandoned this blatant, but accomplished eclecticism on his second album, This Year's Model, in favor of the irresistible rock 'n' roll festivity of "Pump It Up" and "Radio Radio." Throughout these and subsequent releases, such as the bitingly political Armed Forces, he established himself as one of the most provocative lyricists in rock history.
Imperial Bedroom, however, poses a little problem for Costello fans. It shows him awesomely exercising his lyric-writing capabilities while neglecting the hyperkinetic, organ-pumped arrangements that made him a new-wave idol. Imperial Bedroom is almost more of a literary work than a musical one.
By drawing attention to the bedroom in the album's title, Costello is foreshadowing the emotional extortion which is his pervading concern. That bedroom easily could be the setting for many of the album's 14 songs. Never, though, is there an impression that Costello is merely an observer in the album's sagas.
On the contrary, he appears as a sympathetic participant, even when writing in third person. Of course, those lyrics written in first person are often his most effective, as in "Almost Blue," in which he expresses his ambivalence in the presence of a surrogate loser. He writes, "We're almost doing things we used to do / there's a girl here and she's almost you."
Another song written in first person, "Beyond Belief," shows, like "Almost Blue," Costello's penchant for coupling his most interesting perceptions with ingenious rhymes: "Charged with insults and flattery, her body moves with malice / do you have to be so cruel to be callous?" Much is said there about the obnoxiously egotistical girl he is wooing. His rejection is inevitable, though, as he later acknowledges with "I know there's not a chance in Hades."
Two other songs are notable in showcasing Costello's ability to create an emotional landscape. By juxtaposing the lifeless images of fleeting shadows and blank walls with a woman's hands, Costello conveys a bitterly lonely feeling in "Human Hands." In "You Little Fool" he parallels an emotionally impoverished girl's infatuation with superficial adornments, such as makeup and jewelry, with the superficiality of her relationship with a conniving boy; a boy who has a "bird in the hand and two on a string" and to whom "the words of love have an imitation ring."
Imperial Bedroom is arguably Costello's most focused album, which certainly is a virtue. Although it suffers in spots from overproduction and is perhaps overly concerned with melodic subtlety, it is a remarkable achievement. Few artists are able to effect such an impact almost exclusively through lyrics (Bob Dylan, obviously, comes to mind).
While many lyricists tend to dabble about the perimeter of a situation, Elvis Costello gets to the very bottom and plunges up through the middle, tossing out bits of crystalling vision which eventually lead to the true problems and, perhaps, the true solutions. On Imperial Bedroom he does this in his most insightful and eloquent form, which is as insightful and eloquent as rock 'n' roll gets.