Magazine ads for this album suggested it would be considered a masterpiece. While most wouldn't fall for such hubris, one thing that permeates throughout Imperial Bedroom is elegance, from the pompous title to the production assistance from onetime Beatle engineer Geoff Emerick.
Starting with the unstoppable locomotive that drives "Beyond Belief" (courtesy of drummer Pete Thomas, in an amazing performance), there is an amazing breadth of material here.
"Tears Before Bedtime" is a Nashville leftover given a jokey arrangement, while "Shabby Doll" is another song accusing someone of something horrible.
"The Long Honeymoon" is one of many portraits of a damaged marriage, and its unsettling delivery is kicked aside by the cacophony that opens "Man Out Of Time," which smoothes out into a tour de force of a performance before closing on the same cacophony. "Almost Blue" is a heartbreaking torch song written for Chet Baker, deflated by the mocking Masterpiece Theater soap opera of "...And In Every Home."
The second side is dominated by more straight rock, but still retains that elegance. "The Loved Ones" and "Human Hands" remain great singalongs to this day, despite their murky subject matter. "Kid About It" slows things down nicely, picked up by "Little Savage."
"Boy With A Problem" sets up an interlude before the one-two-three punch of the closing tracks. "Pidgin English" laments the loss of language, while "You Little Fool" shakes its head at teenage romance through backwards harpsichords. The grand finale is "Town Cryer," which benefits from the album's most sympathetic arrangement (courtesy of keyboardist Steve Nieve), complete with strings that carry the album into the sunset for the closing credits.
The album was designed to be experienced as a whole; it even included lyrics for the first time on an Elvis album, printed telegram-style with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Over the years Imperial Bedroom has gotten the occasional slag as pompous or overindulgent, but such opinions ignore the excellence and elegance (there's that word again) of the songs. Bizarrely, some of the more challenging tracks were chosen as singles, which didn't fare well on the pop charts.
Being such a strong unified album, it was inevitable that the bonus tracks, added on the 1994 reissue, would detract from the listening experience. It also didn't help that some of the better B-sides from the period were not included.
This would be rectified somewhat with the 2002 Rhino version, which put all the bonus tracks (including most, but not all, of the Ryko bonuses) on a second disc that gives a nice peek into the works-in-progress. Some of these alternates are fascinating (the "Barry White" version of "Town Cryer" is a scream), others show that he was right to redo them, and the demos demonstrate how much he already had in place before bringing the band in.