After Elvis Costello and the Attractions began to win attention in the States some years back, I can recall a host of bar bands in my then-home of San Diego affecting E.C.'s nervous, nerdy manner for their steak house lounge acts, copping everything from his attitude to his horn-rims. They must've thought they had the Costello Concept down easy: be pissed off, buy a Farfisa organ and whine about your ex-girlfriend. If it sold drinks, it was as serviceable as anything else.
Many people thought they had Elvis' image all sussed out, and could thereby predict what he'd be doing for years to come. Usually (and unfortunately), it's the norm that once an artist finds his niche, he'll move into it permanently — Bruce Springsteen, to my mind, has barely moved an inch from the themes and sound of Born To Run. When Costello's acerbic This Year's Model ('78) was followed a year later by the hyper-hysterical Armed Forces, the same appeared to be holding true for him.
Imperial Bedroom, Costello's challenging and impressive new LP, is most thankfully not what might be expected according to this truism. Of course, a close student of Costello might've seen this album coming for some time — fitfully, he's attempted to move away from the agitated garage band sound that worked so well in the early days but threatened to grow routine. For all his rave-ups like "Lipstick Vogue," "Goon Squad" and "The Imposter," there were the scattered melodic pieces like "Motel Matches" and "Big Sister's Clothes" to be found as well. Still, I wouldn't have thought that Costello would've gone as far in the latter direction as Imperial Bedroom takes him. It was a definite gamble, and a lesser talent might well have blown it. But with few exceptions, he and the Attractions have more than acquitted themselves in this fairly grandiose pop experiment.
If Costello has taken pundits off guard with this LP, it may well be because there's been so much critical misunderstanding about him. Rock writers enjoy talking about non-musical intangibles ("stance," "social impact," that sort of thing) rather than rooting around in the writing and recording process itself — such is the stuff of myth-building. There was so much said about Costello's hostility and paranoia early in his career (encouraged, in part, by the artist's own statements to the press and others) that the evolution of his craftsmanship was given scant attention. I'm not suggesting that Elvis is purely a calculating pro whose personal joys and traumas aren't relevant to his work, only that, as one of the most exceptional rock writer/performers to appear in recent times, music as music comes first with him.
Even when pouring on the venom, Costello's work has shown more melodicism than might be expected. His band's sound brought comparisons with the likes of Question Mark and the Mysterians and similar '60s primitivists, and rightly so — but there was an affinity for more sophisticated pop traditions lurking behind all of the Attractions' thrashing and bashing as well. With Imperial Bedroom, Costello reaches back for inspiration to one of the grandest schools of modern record-making, the British melodramatic pop sound exemplified (in differing ways) by Rubber Soul-period Beatles and the mid-'60s hits of Dusty Springfield. If Costello had a genie-granted wish, I'd bet it would be to appear side-by-side with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman in 1965, slipping hummable tales of heartache to Springfield, Sandy Shaw and similar chanteuses.
It may seem hard to recall now, but there was a time when an AM pop ballad hit didn't always mean the sort of poorly written, thoroughly leaden fare that Air Supply, Paul Davis, Bertie Higgins and other nonentities churn out at present. It could mean both melody and power, sentiment and imagination, with even the excess handled with style. Listening to "Man Out Of Time," "Pidgin English," "Town Cryer" and other tunes on Imperial Bedroom, I hear echoes of my favorite Top 40 heart-tuggers of more than a decade ago, written with an appreciation for rich melody and arrangement rarely in evidence now. In all but one or two cases (the overly fussy "...And In Every Home" being the major one), the string and horn icing (arranged by Attraction Steve Nieve) is right on the mark, teetering on the verge of camp with a pizzicato pluck or two but checked at the proper moment.
The track where Costello's intentions in this genre are best realized is "You Little Fool," a superbly conceived and executed ballad-with-a-beat. Powered by an unflagging acoustic rhythm guitar and spiced by judicious use of harpsichord, it gracefully rolls through its verses to an instantly catchy chorus. The mood of the track balances the bittersweet with the ironic, the lyric detailing the plight of a naive and victimized girl teen. Costello offers an especially poignant bridge: "They say no news is good news / The little girl wants information / Mother just gives her some pills to choose / And says go use your imagination."
Such sympathetic sentiments in Costello's lyrics are a new development — or so critics are contending. It's true that this is the most benign album he's recorded yet, a far cry from the bulk of his material four years ago. But perhaps even more important a development in his lyric-writing is its increased accessibility — it's much easier to know what Costello is talking about here, and not just because this is his first LP to print the words to the songs.
Costello's ability to sling puns has always been dazzling, but it reached the point an album or two ago of making his work all but impenetrable. No matter how delicious his use of words was, there were times I felt led down the garden path to a brick wall — curiously, his choruses were often more mysterious than his verses, a la "Clowntime Is Over." The murk isn't completely dispersed on Imperial Bedroom, but it also doesn't dominate as in the past. Even a lyric as obscure as "Pidgin English" (about a murder? a failure to communicate?) has an evocativeness and sharpness of imagery that's more than juggled verbiage.
It's Costello's task in the future to write lyrics as strong as his past work in a cleaner style. Here, the tunes written without the usual lyrical playfulness, "Almost Blue" and "The Long Honeymoon," are good but not exceptional. He tries too hard to be a nice, normal, linear composer on these songs, coming up with lonely-in-love scenarios of only mild interest.
Caution, too, creeps into his actual singing on the album. Too many of Costello's vocals are mumbly and undynamic, without the resonance his expressive songs call for. He can and has sung softer material with feeling before — "Alison" on his debut My Aim Is True LP proved he could deliver a ballad with as much guts as any of his rockers. The material deserved a bit better from his voice this time.
In fact, both Costello and his group sounded in sharper form as a band opening night at the Greek Theater a few weeks ago. As appealing as Imperial Bedroom's arrangements are, they apparently fettered the Attractions' terrific rhythm section, Bruce and Pete Thomas. At the Greek, drummer Pete tore through both new and old songs with the rimshot-cracking, cymbal-tapping frenzy that's always characterized his best playing. Steve Nieve, too, got considerably looser on his array of keyboards than he did on the album. Elvis himself was in fine voice, in command of all the material throughout, never using ballads as an excuse to doze off. The concert made it clear that he and his band can move in a number of directions at their choosing, harder, softer or somewhere in-between. Hopefully, they'll show more of the group sound on vinyl next time that was in evidence at the Greek.
Despite some reservations about the performances, Imperial Bedroom leaves me more than satisfied and most encouraged about Costello's future. With luck, this will be an influential record, motivating others to work within a similar pop ballad genre. Then all those bar bands will have to hock their Farfisas for Steinways.