Emotions of "love" and their varying strengths or falterings may be found in almost any song. This tendency may have escaped some since "love songs," be they good, bad, or indifferent to their subject, duplicate each other so much. Romance is a beautiful or unendurable feeling, but there is not too much left to say about it.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions manage to break through these limitations with Imperial Bedroom (Columbia FC 38157). It may seem difficult to listen to Costello's not-so-simple ideas about love, but his extremely clever lyrics, coupled with a variety of musical styles, make this one of the best concept albums of recent years.
Costello's attitude to the subject at hand? On the album's second song, "Tears Before Bedtime," the romantic turns to an unseen mate and observes "Time gave up the ghost too late, and the balance of our love very soon turns to hate."
All of Imperial Bedroom is not this pessimistic. In fact, it's more like the Ghost of Lovers Past taking the listener through a 15-stop tour of different scenarios of love, touched with consistent rock rhythms or slow-dance moods.
Costello demonstrates what he's learned by going from sneering, "respectable" new wave in 1977 to country melodies in his recent recordings. Man Out of Time, possibly the most rock-influenced song on the album, is followed with Almost Blue": "There's a girl here, and she's almost you, almost / all the things that your eyes once promised / I see in hers, too, how your eyes are red from crying almost blue," sole accompaniment being a torch song-like piano.
Elaborate orchestrations (by Attractions keyboard player Steve Nieve) equal Costello's vocals, while never threatening to surpass him (particularly on "And in Every Home," which could have been from a classical opera.)
This acknowledgement of the ways that music was composed and performed in the past is the best underlying aspect of Imperial Bedroom; not too many current rock performers are apt to incorporate anything other than what's popular in the present. Lyrically, one could easily listen to Costello's latest and realize that the number of words that rock uses would take up a mere three pages in the dictionary.
Also, Costello hands out the lines with each one's conclusion being something you may not expect. From "Human Hands": "I'm just a mere shadow of my former self-ishness..."
Very few can go through romance without some personal changes: this parallels Costello's conversion from moderately loud pronouncements on his early songs to his no more-than-a-near-whisper dominating most of Imperial Bedroom. This softening has not lessened his energetic, fierce performing any; it does make it the most listenable of Costello's eight discs.
As previously mentioned, the theatrics of love have little originality remaining. Imperial Bedroom, however, is a new way of reconvincing us of what we probably already know or feel.