Ever since his second LP in '78, when he started working with the Attractions, Elvis Costello's obsession has been to manipulate and expand the pop-rock song form. Several critics have even said that, as a lyricist, he has succeeded Bob Dylan as the ranking pop miniaturist of this era. But Dylan has always stayed within the bounds of traditional song form; Costello, like Squeeze's
Difford and Tilbrook and occasionally Bruce Springsteen, is much more adventurous. This is more apparent than ever on Imperial Bedroom, a striking blend of incisive pop poetics and artful, musical excursion.
Having concentrated on specific genres on his last two discs (American soul on Get Happy, country on last year's Almost Blue) Costello here draws from a wide array of musical sources to support his mostly dark lyric images. "The Long Honeymoon" 's shadowy, minor-keyed bossa-nova beat fills out the image of a young wife sitting up at home, "wondering where her husband will be tonight" as she gradually builds enough evidence in her mind to substantiate his infidelity. The "Man Out of Time" "listens for the footsteps that would follow him around" within a Phil Spectorish sound context that, colored by Steve Nieve's brilliant and tasteful piano flourishes, is almost cinematic in effect. Here, Costello's wide vibrato recalls such early '60s girl-group singers as Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector.
Throughout, Costello paints his images with interior rhymes, changes in meter, and musical bridges that come in unexpected places. Pungent little phrases economically sum up the attitudes, if not the exact physical dimensions, of his characters. Yet, the straightforward ballad "Almost Blue" is equally effective, more reminiscent of a standard like "My Funny Valentine" than a rock & roll tune. For the most part, the subject matter is dark and sad. But the songs never sound labored, and the singer is eminently capable of transcending the bleakness of his own visions. In sum, Imperial Bedroom is a virtual songwriting tour de force, easily confirming Costello's position as the most strikingly original writer in the modern, post-punk rock era.