Not since the ad hoc assemblage of previously unheard songs on 1980's Taking Liberties have Elvis Costello and his band, the Attractions, offered such an accessible, up-front and comfortable sound as they do on Imperial Bedroom, a 15-song LP released on these shores over the summer.
This does not mean to imply that Costello has let slip the very high standard he's established for himself over a five year, multi-album recording career. Au contraire, cher lecteur!; in certain respects, this is Costello's strongest work to date.
Ironically, the individual virtues here (e.g.: to great advantage, new producer Geoff Emerick showcases Elvis's matured voice much more than Nick Lowe ever did, attraction keyboardist Steve Nieve lends a new dimension to the group's sound with some very appealing orchestral arrangements, and there is a marked lessening of anxiety in Costello's attitude towards the inter- and ultra-sexual worlds around him) all owe much to E.C.'s clearly demonstrated and hitherto unknown vulnerability toward both his musical audience and, one strongly suspects, himself.
What is revealed, after a few listenings, is an altogether new portrait of the artist, who no longer seems such an angry young man. Here is an Elvis who actually utters those three little words he'd only contempt for previously: "I love you," (and this he incorporates a total of — count 'em — three times on Imperial Bedroom). This is no contrived occurrence, nor is the phrase delivered in sarcasm or with irony, strange as it might at first seem to hardened Costellophiles. Elvis has evidently undergone a psychological shift which allows for emotions other than those of guilt and revenge (which have dominated his earlier work). He manages the role of successful lover with much grace and no loss of integrity.
One other remarkable quality of Imperial Bedroom is the strikingly honest way (on both "Loved Ones" and "Town Crier") in which Elvis deals with his own success, being at the same time reflectively self-effacing and assertively defiant, refusing to compromise on anything. With phrasing that rivals the best of (yes!) Sinatra's, Costello croons at one point: "Other boys use the splendour / of their trembling lip. / They're so teddybear tender, / And tragically hip ... Maybe you don't believe my heart is in the right place / Why don't you take a good look at my face?" and reciprocally, the album's photo of Elvis is void of retouching, revealing in graphic black and white the artist's physical imperfections which surround an unperturbed, probitious and spectacled gaze.
One could go on, extolling the substantiality of this disc for a long time. However, suffice it to say that from the moment he emerged from the forefront of 1976's nouvelle vague, Elvis Costello's aim has remained consistently true, and the evidence of Imperial Bedroom shows if anything, a sharpening of focus.