Recently, Nick Lowe called Elvis Costello "the Cole Porter of the eighties." With the release of Imperial Bedroom, his sixth lp of original material in five years, Costello more than lives up to the compliment.
Imperial Bedroom is a crucial record for Costello. It comes after Almost Blue, his brief and mildly received foray into country music, a career move that many people questioned. It is also the first time Costello has taken his material into the studio without Lowe, the power-pop producer, overseeing the knob twirling. The change in producers was inevitable, but the absence of the words "produced by Nick Lowe" on a Costello record jacket makes a lot of people nervous.
So, all tied up in this piece of vinyl is the news. One listen and it is unquestionably evident. With an "I-was never-worried-in-the-first-place" attitude, Costello has proven he has nothing to prove. The album, like all the ones before it, is a giant step forward in his career. There is no repetition. There is only progress.
Tracing Costello's progress since 1977 and the release of My Aim Is True reveals a premeditated rise that seems almost sinister in retrospect. Of all the promising bands the new wave-punk explosion produced (with the exception of the Jam and the Clash), only Costello has maintained his vision. He has accomplished many of his goals and set himself new ones.
But even when placed in such company as the Jam and the Clash, Costello stands out distinctively different and successful. Unlike the Jam, he has never been limited by being British. But he has not done it by bowing to America, either. Unlike the Clash, he has not let the inadequacies of the music business overwhelm him nor has he let the message or politics of his songs overshadow his music. But he writes songs about imperialism, racism, and emotional fascism He is capable of reconciling a thousand contradictions by combining message, attitude and music with a class that is distinctively Costello. And a few listens to Imperial Bedroom demonstrate all the reasons why.
The first thing strikingly different about Imperial Bedroom is the production. Costello picked the right album for the change in producers. The melodic nature of the material is well suited to Geoff Emerick's graceful production. Emerick, who was the chief engineer on the Beatles' Abbey Road album and has worked out of the Abbey Road studios for years, uses a Beatlesque production full of vocal effects, strings (all arranged by Steve Nieve) and interesting uses of keyboards. But the production never overwhelms Costello. In fact, the more complex production spotlights the more complex material Costello wrote for the record. It is Costello who commands the attention. The production serves only to focus, enhance and polish the fifteen tracks included.
And not just any fifteen tracks, but fifteen gems straight from the Costello mine. The subject is one of Costello's favorites — love. He examines a multitude of relationships from many angles. Whether it is the sad lover of "Almost Blue" or the worried wife in "The Long Honeymoon," Costello exposes the emotional undercurrents, revealing things about every lover.
Lyrically, these lover's tales shine. Costello has lost none of his ability as a phrasemaker. He can still give the weakest words muscle, exposing truths that never seemed evident. Taking some old worn out phrase and giving it that Costello twist is something he makes look easy. (Lines like "he's all pride and no joy" or "she's putting him off and putting you on" are just two examples.)
Musically, the songs are all rooted in familiar Costello territory. But he progresses by concentrating on melody and arrangement, making Imperial Bedroom the most musically sound record he has made. He could not have done it without the Attractions. Led by Nieve's exquisite keyboard work, the band seems even better than last time, and that is saying a lot. On upbeat numbers like "Pidgin English" and on the softer songs like "Kid About It" the Attractions once again prove to be a major reason for Costello's success.
Like all Costello records, Imperial Bedroom has its high points. "Pidgin English," "The Loved Ones" and "Beyond Belief" are upbeat numbers that strike immediately. Not to mention the masterful "You Little Fool" where the production, playing, and material combine, resulting in a Costello classic. The soft crooning on "Almost Blue" and "Town Cryer" and the offbeat numbers like "Tears Before Bedtime" and "Shabby Doll" provide balanced diversity and demonstrate Costello's versatility in both singing and writing.
But the overall strength of the record is the most significant factor. Many people thought Costello would burn out long before he got to his sixth record. He proved them wrong by producing consistently strong records without terminally repeating himself. Instead of giving tell-tale signs of career burn out, Imperial Bedroom indicates what Costello has known all along — he is going to be around a long time.