To paraphrase Guardian journalist Lucy Mangan's assessment of the great Jonathan Meades, Elvis Costello often sounds like a man trying to poo a dictionary. Take the first lines of "Beyond Belief," the New Wave milestone that opens this, EC's masterpiece:
- "History repeats the old conceits / The glib replies, the same defeats / Keep your finger on important issues / With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues / I'm just the oily slick / On the wind-up world of the nervous tick / In a very fa-shio-nable hovel."
I have no idea what the fuck he's actually on about, but damn does it sound good, a silvery sluice of carefully-chosen clichés and assured assonance. The music ain't bad, either: a ticking rhythm underpins hyperventilating bass and morse-code guitars, creating an effect that suggests less a pop song than a pressure charge on the point of combustion. After two minutes of pent-up excitement, "Beyond Belief" finally explodes into its glorious chorus: "I've got a feeling / I'm gonna get a lot of grief / Once this seemed so appealing / Now I am beyond belief." I'm not sure whether that even makes sense on a syntactical level, yet I can't think of any pop song which has a better line in delayed gratification.
Costello has always been a wordy bastard, and often, as on Armed Forces or My Aim is True, the constant punning comes across as more of a hindrance than a help: on those records — both of which, don't get me wrong, have some stellar moments — he just sounds pleased with himself. On Imperial Bedroom, however, he's more relaxed, at ease with his verbal diarrhoea: his torrents of phrase no longer seem vindictive or snide — they're funny, artfully constructed and often quite self-deprecating, and only on "Town Cryer" does the potential serial-killer Costello of old raise his horn-rimmed head. The music, too, is a cut above his previous releases: whereas Armed Forces and This Year's Model were straight-ahead powerpop and Get Happy!! was semi-successful Motown pastiche, Imperial Bedroom delivers on the stylistic promise of songs like "Party Girl," taking in everything from Tin Pan Alley to Abbey Road by way of Lonely Street and Electric Avenue. Well, maybe not Electric Avenue: sorry, the word association was just too obvious to resist. Damn you Elvis!
From the punkish pulse of "Shabby Doll" to the plastic soul of "Town Cryer," everything on Imperial Bedroom is near-on faultless. There is, however, one song that stands several hundred feet above its context. Opening with a ferocious barrage of screeching metal, "Man Out of Time" bursts into a Disneyish spectrum of super-harmonic colour: hundreds of guitars and a celestial organ riff make up not so much a wall of sound as an entire terrace — and a pretty grand one, too. Think Regent Street rather than Coronation Street (hang on, this has somehow turned into a thoroughfare-themed post. How did that happen?).
It's also Costello's most quotable lyric:
"There's a tuppeny-ha'penny millionaire / Looking for a fourpenny one / With a tight grip on the short hairs / Of the public imagination / For his private wife and kids somehow / Real life becomes a rumour / Tales of Dutch Courage / Just three French letters / And a German sense of humour / 'He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge / He stands to be insulted, and he pays for the privilege"
Wow. And no, I still don't have the faintest idea what any of it means.