This album has been dubbed a masterpiece by Rolling Stone, that home of overinflated praise. Throwing around meaningless terms like "masterpiece" seems unfair to Costello. Pumping up the expectations of the audience with hype has been generally self-deprecating for rock artists. Remember when Bruce Springsteen was "rock and roll's future"? Imperial Bedroom is an excellent album, but it doesn't need to be put on any pedestals.
Perhaps people are just shocked that Costello actually says "I love you" (gasp!) on record. This does mark progress from fun songs like "No Action" on This Year's Model ("I don't want to kiss you / I don't wanna touch"), and it's true that Costello has never been so emotionally open. But what is more striking about Imperial Bedroom is Elvis' subtle command of pop and rock styles. He has never made it look so easy.
Costello gets away with a lot on this album (extensive use of strings, basically no hardrockers), but his solid pop integrity ties together and validates the songs. The ballad-dominated first side sets the listener up for Elvis' ambitious approach.
I remember being proud of Elvis for refusing to play songs longer than four minutes in an era of wasteful dinosaur rock. The three four-minute-plus songs on Side One, "Shabby Doll," "The Long Honeymoon," and "Man Out of Time," tread the area between brilliant pop and schlock that was the personal property for a time of one of Costello's mentors, Burt Bacharach. Costello updates this genre with his own lyrical wit, leavened with a mature vulnerability — "I can't excuse the cruel words / That I use whenever we fight." "Now I'm a Shabby Doll."
"And in Every Home" finishes the first side by introducing Steve Nieve's string orchestrations, complementing a story of martial disappointment that features lines like "They say they're very sorry / But you are not desired." Did someone say this guy had mellowed?
Side Two is more energetic, and the cream of this side are tow near-perfect pop-rockers, "Human Hands" and "You Little Fool." The latter song steals a backwards tape loop at the fade from the Beatles, which shows that Elvis did learn a few things from ex-producer Nick Lowe. In "Human Hands," Costello forays outside the insularity of personal relationships, playing assembly line facelessness against romantic longing.
The entire second side is a songwriter's clinic, and while one might wish for a larger dose of the loud rock the Attractions are capable of slamming out, Costello's success in almost every one of his gambits. He has maintained a predictable unpredictability through eight albums, and with Imperial Bedrooms, he may finally win over those who could never see past his scowl before.