Elvis Costello is a special kind of romantic—constantly trying to reconcile his vision of ideal love with the reality of day-to-day relationships, he's produced a series of anxious, exhilarating records, any of which could be sub-titled For Neurotic Lovers Only.
The new record, Imperial Bedroom is a novel Costello album because, unlike the ironically titled Get Happy and Trust, it offers a relatively optimistic vision of romance. But that's not saying a whole lot, considering the bleak outlook of Elvis' earlier songs. In other words, he has yet to write anything like "Surfer Girl;" on the other hand, nothing on Imperial Bedroom is as cynical as "Lip Service."
The glimmers of hope on this album show that Elvis is moving towards a more comprehensive vision of love. No longer bitterly pessimistic, he sings "When will you realize / There are 10 commandments of love?," and means it. There's not a hint of cynicism as Elvis declares, "P.P.S. I L-O-V-E / I love you" in "The Loved Ones." There are even a few tracks that approach being love songs. "Almost Blue" and "Human Hands" are Elvis's admissions that romance can result in something other than anger.
None of this means that Costello is becoming complacent as he gets older. He still acknowledges brutal reality in the form of: bullies ("The Loved Ones"), the unfaithful ("The Long Honeymoon"), and the manipulative ("Tears Before Bedtime"). There are some characteristic Costello sneers — "He wants to be a fancy man / but he's nothing but a nancy-boy / he's all pride and no joy." Yet even in his attacks. Elvis has grown away from his early, angry young man stance. He is now capable of expressing his anger without condemning the entire human race. And he's capable of expressing more than anger.
Since Dylan was "born-again," Costello is the only lyricist whose songs have been much fun to decipher. Costello put the fun back into decoding, claiming the crown Dylan abdicated when his lyrics got embarrassingly direct around "You Gotta Serve Somebody."
On his first five albums, Costello mumbled double entendres making it difficult if not impossible to figure out just what the hell he was trying to say (just like Dylan). On the new album Elvis has kindly cut the difficulty of deciphering Costello-speak in half. For the first time one of his albums comes with a lyric sheet (FLASH! Hell found frozen over!).
Costello, however, has never been one to make life easy on his fans, so the lyrics are printed with no punctuation with each song running into the next. By mastering the difficult lyric sheet, however, the devoted can get on with the task of finding the hidden message. But this is still a Costello album. Obscurity abounds. "What's going on behind the green elevator door," "She's going to cop a packet if he ever finds her in between the sheets" — life hasn't been so much fun for the hardy few who actually listen to rock lyrics since Dylan's astonishing "The comic book and me — just us — we caught the bus."
Like the pre-Christian Dylan, Costello revels in word play while aspiring to make some profound statements about love. Like Dylan, he often manages to get away with both. On Imperial Bedroom Elvis has revealed the tenderness under the bitter wit, the romance doesn't suffer at the expense of the puns.
I wake up in the morning / There's frogs inside my socks / The mailman he's hiding behind the icebox / your mother she's wearing a Napoleon Bonaparte mask.