After five years of making albums it's a wonder where Elvis Costello gets his bitterness and irony from.
This is his seventh album — bar the superb Taking Liberties import — and although the voice has mellowed, the sardonic overtones haven't. Back from his jaunt to Nashville for the Almost Blue country set — Costello has moved back to the style of his writing on Trust and Get Happy, with terse concise arrangements always popular, but always strangely offbeat.
It's almost a pity he's dropped the country influence that has tainted his writing, especially the ballads from the second album. The slower numbers here are wandering lounge style affairs that lack the direction of previous classics like "Stranger in The House."
Even "Almost Blue" (included as a song in its own right on this album) is itself a rambling affair that has none of the bite of so many of his songs, despite the panache that hell never lose.
But Imperial Bedroom is still a winner. The opening track "Beyond Belief" has Elvis singing with a silky yet muscular voice oddly betraying the brittle lyrics of the song. "Don't get smart or sarcastic, he snaps beck just like elastic" he croons over layers of organ, synthesizer and harmonies sparking off in odd directions.
In fact, the Elvis voice is stronger, more sympathetic and more mature than ever.
Like steel going through butter the songs are offset by an edge that only a craftsman could manufacture. "Man Out Of Time" is a heavy, heavy affair with the lyrics "He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge" rammed home like a power hammer before the track launches into a chilling 100 mile-an-hour fade out.
Unfortunately, the quality isn't quite as consistent on side two. Numbers like "Little Savage" and especially "Town Cryer" sound as if they've been garnished somewhat to cover up what is essentially weaker material than most of the LP. The latter, with its Steve Nieve orchestrations that really don't fit, is just too laboured to ring true.
Yet with new producer Geoff Emerick, Costello is still bursting with ideas and songs that are quality-laden whatever treatment they are given — witness the superb "Shabby Doll" on side one. Emerlck has possibly over-stretched himself on side two to make songs appear to have been carefully constructed with little feeling behind them, but the overall verdict must be that Costello has yet again returned an album that is rich and interesting, mixing brilliant ideas into a concoction that can be listened to on any level. Almost Blue ... and almost red hot.