CBS, in their continuing effort to find a tagline that adequately conveys the Costello presentation / experience / etc. (and the frustration in the ad dept. must be immense, having already led to the looney indiscretion of last year's Trust slogan — "four eyes one vision" — whew!) are currently offering up one word, a coy question — "masterpiece?" Which is fairly clever, adwise, since it's bound to plant ideas, start rumors, amuse critics... so much so that I feel compelled to begin this review by stating that the album isn't a masterpiece, excellent though it is. True, it's a record that even Kal "the man with the golden ears" Rudman could love — catchy tunes (for sure) presented, mostly, with new (still?) wave succinctness while being instrumentally / arrangementally eclectic and lyrically, alternately, as clear as crystal and obscure beyond all hope of interpretation, the latter seen as a sign of heaviness, even these days. And one must agree that EC has done it again, has topped himself, has come out with an album that both critics and fans are mad about and, even if you can't count the marginalia of Taking Liberties, which got mildly mixed reviews, and the give-em-no-quarter Get Happy, which got wildly mixed reviews, and, who could forget, the sincere but mighty boring homage of Almost Blue, still, that makes this the fifth unquestionable topper in as many years. pretty darn impressive, masterpiece or no.
The problem with this "masterpiece" jazz is that it's too glib an assessment for an album as complex as this one, as transitional, where old and new concerns exist side by side and the eclecticism suggests aesthetic indecision as much as sweep of vision... it fits This Year's Model, a cohesive work that made an impact both as a personal statement and as a shard of the Zeitgeist, i.e., a statement of priorities (though the misogyny was a bit eccentric) in the then newly 'burgeoning reaction against radio radio. But Imperial Bedroom is more of a potpourri of attitudes, impressively clever but ultimately indecisive (though it could be argued that ambiguity is the point).
Not only does Costello's voice dominate the mix now but, for the first time, there's a lyric sheet, the words being presented as four huge blocks of concrete poetry, waiting for the dedicated fan to chip away and separate them into songs. Once that's done the Rorschach lyrics of cuts like "Beyond Belief," "Man Out Of Time," and "Pidgin English" are laid bare for your potentially unlimited interpretations, and if you spare me yours, I'll spare you mine. Other songs, though, reveal a new orientation for Costello, as apparently the focus of his attention has evolved from romantic anger and frustration to romantic entropy — less howls of dissatisfaction at rejection and perceived betrayal now, more acknowledgement that love often just disappears, usually inexplicably, almost always unexpectedly. The mysterioso rage of This Year's Model has largely been supplanted by one long sigh of "Tears Before Bedtime," the remorseful confessions of "Shabby Doll," the gentle warning of "The Long Honeymoon." Meanwhile, the music is a grab bag of cleverly employed styles, from the late '60s baroque of "...And In Every Home," which, with its (I hope) tongue-in-cheek string and brass orchestrations by Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, sounds like something torn the Bee Gees' first album, and "You Little Fool," with its harpsichord and backward tapes (and lyrics! — "the little girl wants information / mother just gives her some pills to choose / and says to go use your imagination" — which should make it a potentially great subversive radio cut, if only such things were allowed nowadays) thru the sad reflectiveness of "Almost Blue," a ballad as latenight bittersweet as the original Miles Davis Quintet, and "The Long Honeymoon," a light bossa beat with accordian, to the Blonde On Blonde impersonation of "Man Out Of Time" and the vintage Costello-isms of "The Loved Ones" and "Little Savage."
It's fascinating to listen to, uh, Elvis (I predict a name change within the next five years, probably back to Declan as various restricting aspects of the original EC image continue to be discarded) as he expands the emotional content of his music, slowly, surely, inevitably. Still, I hold back on the ultimate praise, not too perversely I feel, thinking "masterpiece?," no, this is too open-ended, too still-alive to be embalmed by such a pickling word — the opposing forces of EC's new-found compassion and his old hatred haven't really reached any kind of synthesis yet. But they will. Then...?