The first thing you heard about Elvis Costello was that he was the "angry young man" of the British new wave. Probably the second was that in a drunken stupor he once got in an argument with members of the Steven Stills Band and called Ray Charles "a blind, ignorant nigger" in a misbegotten effort to outrage his adversaries. Most recently, if you've been paying close attention, you hear that E.C. has recently "matured and has metamorphosed into the the Cole Porter of the 80s," has created the "new Seargent Pepper" with his new album, Imperial Bedroom, and is generally considered these days the Mr. Wonderful of contemporary pop.
It's all true, of course. And Presley was the King, The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, and the Dead are a bunch of burned-out, boring refugees from the '60s with no redeeming value whatsoever. You can't argue with these intrinsically valid generalizations, but there's so much more to these groups. By the same token, there's so much more to Costello than the simple-minded cliches that have plagued his entire career.
Take that great original cliche — Elvis as angry, pissed-at-the-world enigma. It dogged Costello for much of his early career and still somewhat haunts him today. He really has no one to blame for it but himself. Elvis first made his move during the late '70s, an epochal time for rock, with the Sex Pistols pointing their diabolical fingers at a vulnerable rock world and shaking it out of its mid-'70s doldrums. Although Costello was never really a part of the Pistols' punk movement, he found a comfortable niche anyway, "surfing" on the new wave, as he likes to put it. A pumped-up Steve Nieve keyboard; an acid-tinged tongue; a bitter searching voice — these were the early Costello trademarks, and they even betrayed at times a vitriol seldom equaled by the best of the punks.
Clever but virulent wordplay abounded. "I don't wanna be your lover — I just wanna be your victim," Elvis sputtered in his souped-up homage to whacking-off that he not-so-subtly dubbed "The Beat." And he bragged in "Lipstick Vogue," "Sometimes I almost feel... just like a human bein.'"
So it went. But Costello's brazen contention that the only emotions he could feel were revenge and guilt quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Forty-five minute, "fuck-the-world" concerts were the rule; there were no exceptions. E.C. refused for a time to talk to the press, and he slid inexorably towards that fateful night in Columbus with Stills bandmembers.
Of course what got lost in the shuffle was that the distinctive organ sound overshadowed some very deep rock roots and sensibilities. That acid tongue blighted some very heartfelt emotions and a sophisticated political consciousness Costello understands, as the Clash never will, that political involvement must start on a very personal level, in one's own "Hoover Factory," not in a helter-skelter call for a "White Riot."). Or that grating voice obscured a sincerity hard to find in rock today. But that's what the cliche to which he bound himself — "continued anger," as he recently put it in an interview — did to his talents.
No question Costello has mellowed since those early, angry days. But the temptation has nonetheless lingered to pigeonhole the man, though to his credit Elvis no longer encourages it with infantile posturing. There was the soul-influenced Get Happy — E.C.'s testimony of allegiance to Black music. There was Trust and Taking Liberties and, of course, that much-spat-upon, thoroughly underestimated, straight-from-the-heart paean to Nashville and Elvis's love, country music — Almost Blue.
Costello did a masterful job keeping the critics guessing and shifting gears, but they finally thought they got him pinned down on Imperial Bedroom. They don't.
Imperial Bedroom is a remarkable album, not in what it accomplishes for today, but in what it promises for the future. Of all Costello albums, it is easily the most inaccessible, as Elvis oftentimes suffers from that dreaded malady diagnosed by Robert Christgau as the "Jackson Browne syndrome" — boringness. You must listen to this record repeatedly and almost painstakingly to appreciate the full flavor of the minutiae and detail Costello has packed. It's worth the effort, but you have to sweat mighty hard to get there.
Elvis has obviously poured his guts into the making of Imperial, but it is clear he poured without direction. It has been after all, about a year-and-a-half since he last released original material with Trust. Almost Blue was entirely country covers — and Elvis has never appeared more urgent, more frantic simply to get his ideas spilling out. The album is terribly passionate, loaded with sharp commentary about out-of-touch English aristocracy, the dilemma of getting your girlfriend pregnant, and broken marriages. What's more, Costello goes crazy on the overdubbing of his own voice, on snappy little orchestral hooks with violins, and other assorted studio, song-writing gimmicks. But it is all too much, too soon, with too much to be assimilated in one or even repeated sittings.
These are carping rejections, to be sure, for when judged on absolute terms, the album is damn good Costello's vocal range and song writing skills are intact; songs like "Shabby Doll" and "Town Crier" attest to that. The backing Attractions are as marvelous and tight as ever. And what's more, his soul is still there, as ideas and innovation just sizzle on Imperial.
Costello once focused the same sorts of ideas and innovation into bitter anger. That approach worked for a while, but Elvis eventually crumbled under the weight of his own expections. It's time for him to focus his loosey-goosey energies once more. You know it's coming, and you have to hope for El's sake that his new tactics aren't as self-destructive as the old.