One thing Elvis Costello has never learnt is good manners. I don't want to go to Chelsea! / I don't want to be a goody-goody! And here he goes again: I don't want to talk about it any more / I don't want to fight. Maybe this time he means it.
Imperial Bedroom presents fifteen songs in a way that throws out enormous complexities. We're accustomed by now to having to assimilate Costello's records over long periods. The way Get Happy!! and Trust came out as slowly penetrating indices to an anti-visionary diagnosis of social evil made a diminishing record like Armed Forces look almost perfunctory. To that extent nothing has been introduced here to cause any jolting change. Costello's brief vacation in the confines of a Nashville sob story hasn't softened his outlook one iota.
As is immediately apparent in the opening "Beyond Belief," a study in tensions coursing through a brittle structure like an arctic wind. "Keep your finger on important issues with crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues / I'm just the oily slick on the windup world of the nervous tick." It's easy to quote this time because the lyrics are printed on the inner sleeve; an unpunctuated spray of words, blanketed across like some emotionless Reuters despatch. Except of course, they enunciate stories of revenge, cruelty, waste and weakness — the bones of everyday tragedy picked over and over until the purge is complete and you just don't feel it any more.
At this stage in his progression Costello does seem cleansed. If the obsessive little misanthrope of My Aim Is True has been displaced by a cooler commentator, he remains fixated on the impotence and deceit that infests the one-to-one universe. Imperial Bedroom only relents where — on the genuinely affecting "Almost Blue," which is not in any way a country song — it pauses at what seems a personal sadness. Otherwise, even when dealing in the first person, a distance is maintained that acts as an airlock on breakdown.
That might be no more than a standard pop artifice — but there's an irony here which Costello must surely relish. His initial association with the vanguard of 1977 was forged primarily through that compulsively personal stance — the nakedness of self — and the key strand in contemporary pop is if anything even more concerned with the romantic confessional (Fry, Kerr, Shelley etc. etc). Yet Costello is a million miles from that. The only resource of an extremely private and still responsible man is to speak from a defence constructed from ambiguities, and therein exists the fantastic web of layers and shafts and resonances. If the acid remarks seem untouchably cold then it may be that their heat is twice removed. Ice can burn too.
Like all his records Imperial Bedroom shows a fascination with paradox. The aforementioned "Almost Blue" is followed by "...And In Every Home" which is a completely detached vignette of another life, adorned by a wildly eccentric orchestration from Steve Nieve. If there is any subjective departure it is here and in the formally precise dissection of tragic suspicion in "A Long Honeymoon" (replete with cafe society accordion), episodes from another life told this time by an avowed outsider. Costello even permits Chris Difford to compose some of the words for "Boy With A Problem."
And needless to say there's a forest of quotable lines, echoes and reflections and glimmers of uncertainty — there's no need to pick them apart and it would devalue the crux of the record: the way sound has been refashioned.
This is pop music organised to an incredible sophistication. However it has been achieved — presumably the enlistment of Geoff Emerick as producer plays a considerable part in what is basically a logical advance on Trust a massive leap though it may be — it sets out parameters of sound that seem to alter within the inner ear: which means that Costello has finally achieved a synthesis of words and music that correlates to the duplicity of each. As an alternative interpretation reverberates out of a lyric, so the music comes to perform a parallel role.
How is it done? Costello has often been charged with creative plagiarism, breaking down other songs and rebuilding them to his own ends; the whole of Get Happy!! was recognised as a Stax/Motown chart turned inside out. In Imperial Bedroom though it's as if he's viewed the whole of rock music's bloated history and systematised an entirely different set of coordinates that still, amazingly, operate inside a recognisable — indeed, classic — pop medium. In the construction of the tunes the spirit of pop survives; in their delivery it is virtually exorcised. Guitars are relegated to mere colouration — the predominant melodic shape is drawn from Nieve's keyboards. Voices change inside the contours of a song, cellmates of different temperament: hear "Kid About It" or the endlessly detailed "Shabby Doll" for how they coexist. Rhythm, which Pete Thomas was dismembering as long ago as "No Action" is taken out of itself.
Yet every track leads its double life as a flawless pop song. Costello has a long memory: his "Shabby Doll" could easily be Buddy Knox's "Party Doll" in modern dress. At times he seems to be teasing — "Tears Before Bedtime" has a vocal part that mocks doo-wop tradition and "Pidgin English" uproots a set of rock 'n' roll icons, with a closing murmur of "P.S. I Love You" as the coda. In the truly sublime "A Man Out Of Time" though, he summons a breathtaking recollection from the heartland of pop. The chorus here is one of the greatest moments in music this year.
Like the whole record. This is pop music that challenges the undertaking. This is miles ahead.