Here it is: Elvis Costello's magnum opus and arguably his finest album. Imperial Bedroom is a sprawling and epic piece of work that finds Costello at his creative and contemplative best; it's an ambitious effort that, thanks in large part to Beatles producer Geoff Emerick, succeeds on every level and takes Elvis Costello and the Attractions further than they've ever gone before and possibly since.
The first striking thing about this album is the sound itself. It has a warm and inviting sound that immediately draws you in. The songs have much more breathing room and feel more laid back than they did on any previous EC album and there's no doubt that Emerick is responsible for this. He takes Costello's songs and gives them a life of their own while still allowing Costello and the band to work their magic. It's slick and more restrained with a gentle warmness that flows effortlessly through every song. "Beyond Belief" is another gem in a long line of great album openers and immediately the album's production sets in, giving the song a wide-open atmosphere while making it intimate at the same time. The poppy "Tears Before Time" immediately follows and gives keyboardist Steven Nieve a chance to shine with some unique sounds. This is really an album where he gets plenty of time in the spotlight, both on the keyboard and as a conductor and arranger for the various string arrangements sprinkled throughout the record. The soft accordion and piano melody of "The Long Honeymoon" is a perfect companion to Costello's lyrics, a story about a young wife who's waiting for her husband to call or come home but can't bring herself to actually pick up the phone and face the fear that he may be having an affair with her best friend.
"Almost Blue" is one of Costello's most famous songs, a gentle piano ballad with a smoky blues feel to it. The fanfare trumpets of "...And in Every Home" completely take you by surprise but they fit the song so well that they quickly feel second nature and it's one more nice production touch that sets this album apart from anything Elvis had recorded before. The fast-paced "Little Savage" is an exhilarating ride while "The Loved Ones" contains one of my favorite Costello openings: "Don't get smart or sarcastic / He snaps back just like elastic / Spare us the theatrics and verbal gymnastics / We break wise guys just like matchsticks." It ends on a more optimistic note by revealing the original title for the album: PPSILOVEYOU. The album's closer is a beautiful song titled "Town Cryer," complete with Nieve's delicate piano and a soaring orchestra brings the entire album together and leaves an indelible impression.
I have to save a paragraph for the album's true highlight and one of the most devastating songs in EC's library: "Man Out of Time." What's really interesting is that the track both begins and ends with an earlier and rougher version of the song. These bookends take you by surprise because the final cut of the song sandwiched in the middle is far superior and much more polished. The pop melody is incredibly bright and catchy while the words paint a picture that could be as autobiographical as they are allegorical. The entire album should be heard from beginning to end but if you absolutely must hear only one track from the record it's this one, without a doubt.
Despite the fact that it was met with commercial and critical indifference upon the time of its release, Imperial Bedroom has gone on to become one of Costello's most beloved and acclaimed albums. From its glossy production to its colorful cover art, everything about this record is sheer perfection. The Attractions are flawless as always and Costello's words and music are a bit more open and optimistic which results in a fresh experience that isn't easy to forget. All 15 tracks flow together effortlessly and the whole album should be heard from beginning to end; it's like a movie where every scene is important and to not see the whole thing would greatly hurt the experience. In fact, this album is my second-favorite of Costello's (the top prize will be listed down the road). Out of nearly 20 albums that's no small accomplishment.
This is one of the most stirring and beautiful records of the past 50 years. Own it, hear it, and experience it time and time again.