It is curious that critics have waited this summer, with the release of Imperial Bedrooms, to proclaim Elvis Costello a major pop talent. I remember when his first album, My Aim is True was released, and we all wondered how he could possibly follow that explosive debut. It was so fresh and uncompromising, the songs were short and cunning, and his voice sounded hurt and angry.
Next he put out This Year's Model, which sounded like a cousin to Revolver, and better yet, he had formed a band, the Attractions, which shared his disillusioned view of the world.
When I saw Elvis and the Attractions in Phoenix in the Spring of 1979, they did a 50-minute set with no encores and then the roadies turned on a loud droning buzz to disperse the crowd which still screamed for more. I wasn't disappointed, though, because in that fifty minutes Costello had been more impassioned than some performers are during an entire tour.
That show coincided with the appearance of Armed Forces, which turned many fans off because of its elaborate layered texture. But the material was still first-rate, and the finale, Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" rivalled even "Radio Radio" for the sound of a band which might explode at any minute. For me, Elvis just kept getting better.
Get Happy was the antithesis of the short set I had heard him perform in Arizona. Twenty songs clocked in at just under 50 minutes (the average length of an album is usually around 35 to 40), and the songs themselves were an antithesis to the title: they expressed despondency, loneliness, false hopes and more emotional fascism in the material world.
Despite his prolific output, Imperial Bedrooms does not find Costello short of things to say. If anything, he continues to expand his stylistic repertoire with better ballads and more meaningful rockers.
This eclecticism is also evident in his personality. On a recent David Letterman Late Night show, the singer chatted amicably with Letterman about various topics, including the "miracle" of his status in the recording industry despite the meager airtime his songs receive. He went on to say that he hoped Frank Sinatra would record "Almost Blue" off the new record, a jilted lover ballad which lends itself perfectly to Sinatra's style.
Without blinking an eye, he then walked over to pick up his guitar and sing "A Man Out Of Time," the most powerful song from Imperial Bedrooms, with lines like "Whose nerves are always on a knife's edge? Who's up late polishing the blade?"
His vocal improvisations off the record were elaborate, bending the original melody's line so out of shape it was chilling. And the texture was thin enough with the live performance that one could catch more of the lyrics. On the recording, producer Geoff Emerick (who worked on Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road) weaves a thick yet spacious texture of sound, with ringing acoustic guitars and reverberating piano. The effect is tremendous, but some words are overshadowed.
The most striking thing about this album is the expanded range of Costello's voice, which has always been showcased in concert, and is emphasized here in the complex melodies he writes for himself. His low tones are much richer than before, and throughout, his control is superb.
To compliment this, keyboardist Steve Nieve has scored some fine orchestral accompaniments to articulate Costello's style on "And in Every Home" and "Pidgen English." The expressive weight of the emotions is increased by the ominous horns which enter at the end of a "Long Honeymoon." The album ends with a poignant self-portrait, entitled "Town Crier."
"I'm the town crier, and everybody knows
I'm a little down with a lifetime to go.
Maybe you don't believe my heart is in the right place
Why don't you take a good look at my face?"
The strings echo and amplify the sense of relentless anxiety he sings of, and the listener is left with the feeling that Elvis accepts his lot, and perhaps even likes life, although for him it means so much dissatisfaction. It's good to hear him embrance life at last. He's out of place in this world, but he's trying to make himself feel more at home.