Imperial Bedroom is the new album by a new Elvis Costello, but first a word on the old one.
When Messner brought home a record called My Aim Is True in 1977 with a pigeon-toed nerd on the cover, we all laughed. "Who is this Elvis Costello anyhow?" A big joke.
Then we heard —
"Now that your picture's in the paper bein'
and you can have anyone you ever
desired, all you gotta tell me now
is why, why, why, why."
— "Welcome To The Working Week"
It kind of clammed up the laughter for awhile. By the time that first album spun itself out we didn't know if this Elvis was king, despite the album cover's hype, but we had a taste of his bitter anger and we wanted more.
"No, don't ask me to apologize,
I won't ask you to forgive me.
If I'm gonna go down, you're gonna
come with me.
You say 'Why don't you be a man about it,
like they do in grown up movies?'
But when it comes to the other way around,
you say you just wanna use me."
— "Hand In Hand"
Less than a year later, when Messner brought home This Year's Model, we anxiously listened to a forty-five minute tantrum. For most of the songs Elvis was on alternating ends of a smoking pistol. Either the girl was using him or he was accusing her.
Like a gang of boys consoling their jilted mate, we reveled in Elvis' anger, confusion and frustration at this world of liars and users.
Messner didn't bring home Armed Forces in 1978, I did.
From the color-splattered cover to the inner sleeve with El sprawled dead on a diving board, we got the picture that Elvis Costello's private war with the public world was raging at full scale. Though he changed the album's title at the last minute from Emotional Fascism, no punches were pulled on the songs. Nick Lowe, Elvis' producer, commandeered the dials with a tactical dexterity missing from the previous records. Lyrically, as ever, Elvis aimed low and hit high at everything from corporate guerilla warfare in "Senior Service" to mercenaries in "Oliver's Army" to narrow-minded broadcasters in "Green Shirt." Though Elvis never softened the attack, there were hints that in the eternal battle between men and women, the blows were beginning to take effect.
"And it's the damage that we do and never know.
It's the words that we don't say that scare me so."
— "Accidents Will Happen"
In the next year Elvis released forty songs on two albums, the ironically tided Get Happy and the compendium of singles and rarities, Taking Liberties. In these songs the war continued, even accelerated. Meanwhile, we were getting shell-shocked. When Trust came out the bile and suspiciousness and neurotic paranoia had amassed to lethal doses. We began to fear that Elvis, as in his song, was "shot with his own gun." But Trust, detached from the canon of Elvis' work up to this point, is a brilliant and diverse masterpiece. We accepted the country covers on Almost Blue and, in fact, it opened up the drink-infested, pathetic, traumatic world of Hank Williams, George Jones and Gram Parsons. It was also a breather — or a gasp — from the wrath of Costello.
"Oh darling, how I miss you
I'm Just the mere shadow of my former selfishness
I crave the silhouette of your kiss."
— "Human Hands"
"I would have waited all my life
to make love out of something other than spite."
— "Little Savage"
"Darling, your suspiciousness
tortures me at night,
but I can't excuse the cruel words
I use whenever we fight."
— "Tears Before Bedtime"
Is this the same man who sang, "I don't wanna be a lover, I just wanna be your victim" in "The Beat" and "Sometimes I think love is just a tumour; you've got to cut it out" in "Lipstick Vogue"? That Imperial Bedroom was originally to be called A Revolution Of My Mind indicates, less subtly, that Elvis may be willing to negotiate a ceasefire at the bedside night table. He's never been this vulnerable, this adult, this human.
Like a kid, an enfant terrible, Elvis has whined and threatened, boasted and mocked. As he sings in "The Loved Ones," "Don't get smart or sarcastic, he snaps back just like elastic. Spare us the theatrics and verbal gymnastics. We break wise guys just like matchsticks." This, his most angry song on the album, ends with an emotional undertow of Elvis spelling out "PPS I LOVE YOU."
What we have here on Imperial Bedroom is tenderness. It's not soapy sentimentality. Elvis is still writing about the failure to communicate and the emotional discordance men and women are prone to. His desire to love and to be loved have never been more clearly put. As he writes in "Town Cryer," a line that recalls Smokey Robinson's "Tracks Of My Tears," "Maybe you don't believe my heart is in the right place. Why don't you take a good look at my face?" And that face would not reveal the nasty smirks of a spastic brat, but the pangs of a maturing love-weary and love seeking man.
That is the Elvis Costello persona and always has been behind the ranting and raving and "verbal gymnastics."
We listen to Imperial Bedroom and say that Sinatra must record "Almost Blue" and that "The Long Honeymoon" is classic wedding day accordian music. Messner the historian points to the influence of Elvis' father, Ross MacManus, a singer of Cole Porter and Gershwin songs from the 40s and 50s. Praise pours out for Elvis' crisp voice and Geoff Emerick's sterling production with strings and horns and the impeccable performance, as usual, by The Attractions. But what stands out most clearly is that we're not part of Elvis' lovestruck gang anymore, pointing the finger and gulping down guilt while emptying glasses at the local pub. Declan Patrick MacManus has grown up. Elvis Costello has put down his dukes, but carefully.
"Love and unhappiness go arm in arm,
long suffering friends of your fatal charm.
Isn't it a pity that you're going to get hurt,
just a little boy lost in a big man's shirt"
— "Town Cryer"