Too bad Elvis Costello can't beat the angry young rocker rap.
He can invoke the names of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart all he wants; he can disclose in interviews that he hopes Frank Sinatra will record his songs; he can pose in a Hoagy Carmichael hat; he can even release a recorded-in-Nashville country music album, as he did last year.
Still, few will believe that Costello has developed a musical mix that overrides time or stylistic boundaries, unless they give Imperial Bedroom an honest listen.
Rock 'n' roll is only one of many influences in this LP. It also culls from '40s instrumentation, '50s show tunes, bits of jazz, and — in Steve Nieve's varied and eloquent acoustic piano — even a little classical.
In instrumental passages, Costello makes specific references to the Beatles' "Penny Lane" and Dylan's "Positively Fourth St."
Costello has mined a number of pop music veins and has finally struck his gold with Imperial Bedroom — a culmination of the transition he started with the 1981 LP Trust. There, Costello's work made its first allusions to eras before rock 'n' roll and re-emphasized his love for country music, which he demonstrated on his earliest recordings.
His next LP, Almost Blue, may have been his country music tribute, but, consciously or unconsciously, it also confirmed the suspicion that Costello had changed.
Musically, country music has no role on Imperial Bedroom. Country themes do enter the lyrical content, which, as the album title indicates, ruminates on the crimes of passion committed within the locked doors of the heart.
With a concertina's melancholy weeping behind it, "The Long Honeymoon" crawls inside the mind of a wife who wonders where her husband could be. "He was late this time last week, who can she turn to when the chance of coincidence is so slim..."
On "Boy With a Problem," lyrics contributed by Squeeze's songwriter Chris Difford reach into the husband's thoughts: "I crept out last night behind your back, the little they know may be the pieces I lack ... / I can't believe all you've forgotten, sleeping with forgiveness in your heart for me."
Yet, much of the album tells not complete stories, but a series of personal impressions on one emotional subject, much like Dylan wrote on politics in his early days. The music follows through on the moods and psychological reactions.
What could be more appropriate for a teary, romantic break-up scene than a piano's tinkling, and a stand-up bass' downtrodden thumps on a bourbon-soaked torch song, "Almost Blue." (Obviously, this is the song Costello intends for Sinatra.)
The paranoiac visions cast in "A Man Out of Time" appear to mean a man with little time left. But the song begins with a maddening instrumental foray, shifts to a majestic piano crescendo, settles into a mid-tempo for most of the song. and then closes with the same frightened rush that opened it.
With the accompanying instrumental arrangement, the title "A Man Out Of Time" also indicates a man displaced from the rhythms of life.
Costello provides a look at his plays on words on a lyric sheet that roams Imperial Bedroom's inner sleeve like one long stream-of-consciousness poem.
The lyric sheet is difficult to read, probably because he wants you to listen hard to the songs; to glean their double meanings from the meticulously crafted inflections and phrasing; to note the piano accents and Nieve's understated orchestrations of electric and acoustic instruments, including strings, brought to realization through Geoff Emerick's production.
Imperial Bedroom operates on several levels, both musically and lyrically. And if Costello fans accustomed to his rock 'n' roll styles don't desert him for progressing, perhaps his musical talent may eventually pull him out of the hole of an image he dug for himself.