This is Elvis Costello's best yet. I know you've heard that before, and probably about a couple of his albums, but I can't help it if the guy just keeps getting better. And that's exactly what he's done — expanded his scope, enlarged his arrangements, broadened his stylistic base, even increased his depth. In fact, Imperial Bedroom is so good that there's almost nothing that can be said about it that won't sound like hype, at least until you've listened for yourself.
To begin with, Costello simply sounds better than before. Not only is his singing sharper and more assured, but it's much further up in the mix, so you don't have to strain to catch every bit of wordplay. Moreover, he makes much greater use of overdubs, ranging from the cheerfully harmonized echoes in "...And In Every Home" to the semi-doo-wop that animates the chorus to "Tears Before Bedtime." Costello has always been an able tunesmith, but this time out he really makes the most of it, and oddly enough, that extra effort is curiously reciprocal because it seems to have generated some of his most graceful lyrics to date.
As the title suggests, most of the songs here are about domestic conflicts, the sort of emotional tyranny Costello has focused on from the start. Here, however, Costello doesn't use the music as a forum for angry reprimands or as formal bases for stylized tales of heartbreak (this being his greatest weakness as a country songwriter). Instead, he keeps his lyrics tied to the ebb and flow of the music, and vice versa, so that the lyrical climaxes coincide with the musical ones. It's hardly a new idea — listen to Showboat sometime to hear how they used to do it — but it's one particularly suited to Costello's musical vision.
Especially now, because Costello's eclecticism is just coming into full bloom. After a number of idiomatic albums — the Stax-styled Get Happy, the countrified Almost Blue, the imitation Abba of Armed Forces (Abba & Costello?) — Costello has an unparalleled command of rock's stylistic vocabulary, and with it he leaps casually across genres, often within a single song. Because of this, and because he takes advantage of Steve Nieve's surprising ability as an orchestrator, there is likely to be a strong temptation to consider this Costello's Sgt. Pepper. Resist this at all costs, for while it's true that Costello is aiming for a universality of sorts, there's none of the self-consciousness of Sgt. Pepper in Imperial Bedroom's diversity.
If there are any parallels to be drawn at all, more likely candidates would include Cole Porter and George Gershwin, songwriters who understood the interplay between words and music, and who appreciated how borrowed styles. can pull extra mileage out of tired formats. That's heady company, to be sure, but unusually appropriate in this case. Elvis Costello sounds right now like the most accomplished songwriter in rock; who's to say that's going to be any different ten years from now?