Melody Maker, July 3, 1982

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Melody Maker


Man out of time

Elvis Costello / Imperial Bedroom

Adam Sweeting

Costello's temporary immersion in country music might have been a crucial clue. Was he looking for a way back to greater simplicity, away from his own increasingly tortuous syntactical minefields and dense arrangements. More than likely.

Imperial Bedroom finds him picking up pretty much where Trust left off. Though there's more scope in the arrangements here, this is plainly the "mainstream" Elvis right from the opening bars of "Beyond Belief."

It's a taut, streamlined opener, with Bruce Thomas' lean bass hanging hard in the empty spaces while El breathes the lyric confidentially. " in this almost empty gin-palace through a two-way looking glass..." Thinking caps on and start concentratng, this is brain food. Too much, in fact.

Much as I admire Costello's ability to wield a double-entendre like the greatest swordsman in history, I'd swap quite a few of these bons mots for some of the raw passion which he used to invest in his songs, however slight. "Welcome To The Working Week" would indeed be welcome here, while I suppose "Motel Matches" would be too much to ask.

Is it possible that Elvis finds it all too easy? Certainly he proves again here that he can scamper across any amount of territory in the course of a few minutes. There's the lurch 'n' bump of "Human Hands," a swathe of strings and even a brass band in "...and In Every Home," not to mention the stopped-in-the-water piano balladry of "Almost Blue."

On the more muscular side, there's the solid punch of "Pidgin English" and the brusque clanging acoustic guitar and Al Kooperish-organ of "Man Out Of Time." In fact there's pretty much everything except blatant rock 'n' roll.

So what am I moaning about? Only that this record, accomplished as it is, has more cleverness than soul, more artifice than art. Just the fact that Costello has whipped out innumerable tricks in the arrangements suggests that he senses a lack of more direct means of persuasion. I mean, there's a horn in "The Long Honeymoon" (my favourite track), a Spanish guitar solo in "Pidgin English," and a shrill outbreak of strings in "Town Cryer."

And after all that, there's not many songs which really stick. There are moments, sure — but even the striking opening cadence of "Kid About It" has been lifted from "I Go To Sleep."

Best of the lot is "The Long Honeymoon," a riveting little study of suspected infidelity couched in tawdry package-holiday images — the rhumba beat, the ironic accordion, "there's no money-back guarantee."

But despite these, and odd flashes of lyrical expertise like "you do something very special to Mr Average" ("Little Savage") or "So this is where he came to hide when he ran from you / In a private detective's overcoat and dirty dead man's shoes" ("Man Out Of Time"), there's an uneasy sense that we've been this way before. There's nothing in the shape of the songs to demarcate them from prime Costello of the past, and lyrically he doesn't hit any new bases, skewer any radically new approaches.

And at the risk of blasphemy, I'd even award lyric-of-the-match award to guest/interloper Chris Difford for this little gem from "Boy With A Problem": "Came home drunk talking In circles / The spirit Is willing but I don't believe in miracles."

If you like the man, there's plenty here to get stuck into. But I'm disappointed that he's been content to polish up manifestos already issued, straighten the pictures on the wall instead of redecorating. Frankly Elvis, I expected more.

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Melody Maker, July 3, 1982

Adam Sweeting reviews Imperial Bedroom.


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Cover and page scan.
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Photos by David Bailey.

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