The first thing to keep in mind when dealing with Elvis Costello & The Attractions' Imperial Bedroom is, it's about a word thing, man. Just look at the way the letters in the title are clenched tight together on the cover — IbMePdErRoIoAmL — like the couple of battling lovers they're meant to imply.
When you slit the shrink wrap and slid the record out (we're talking the original July, 1982 release here, not the current, expanded Rykodisk digital reissue), the lyrics on the inner sleeve were done up as a single, run-on sentence and, in case you failed to pick up on this referential nod to the novel Ulysses, there was E.C. himself on the jacket, pictured in straw boater and wire rim spectacles, a lovingly replicated James Joyce.
Like the tomes of his Irish, man-of-letters model, Imperial Bedroom has a vast narrative scope. It literally swings from the canals of Mars to the Great Barrier Reef.
Costello, whose real name is Declan MacManus, although he was born in Liverpool, England, may forever be telling us tales of domestic conflict, but here, his aim is truly encyclopedic.
He opens the record with a rambling monologue, "Beyond Belief," that begins with a disclaimer, "History repeats the old conceits, the quick replies, the same defeats," which is itself a pretty fair summation of the action in Finnegans Wake.
Later in the same song, he sings "this scrapple with the bottle is nothing so novel," thereby lassoing both Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Malcolm "Under The Volcano" Lowery with a single toss.
Later still, in the record's first, and false, climax, "Pidgin English," he actually starts compiling a list of tongues: "silence is golden, money talks diamonds and ermine," he coos, "there's a word in Spanish, Italian and German... in Sign Language, Morse Code, semaphore and gibberish." Some, sadly, saw the whole affair as just so much babble, on and on without end, and to think we accused Van Morrison of being, verbose. But if the technical gears employed in creating "Pidgin English" didn't always quite mesh (it's sung by an overlapping chorus of voices, all of them Costello in differing timbres and attitudes), it is nevertheless a brilliant conception and a powerful set of images.
There is, to me, no logical conclusion but that this album is its author's most rewardingly plangent vision of all (though I sympathize with those who dream the lyrics or changes to This Year's Model and Armed Forces), and it's made even richer by its nearly Baroque musical framework.
The name of Geoff Emerick is prominently displayed in the credits as having been its producer (...from an original idea by E.C., it quibbles), and Emerick's rock-as-art pedigree is unassailable. He was, after all, at the Abbey Road studio control board, engineering the 1966-67 sessions that yielded the ballyhooed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and just about every other late Beatles album.
Imperial Bedroom sounds important, that's for sure. It's got every bit as much pure commercial appeal as anything by The Liverpool String Quartet, as Lennon and McCartney and company were once ludicrously called. To best utilize limerick's bright, lustrous palette and the big opportunity it presented, Costello employed as many differing styles as possible for the album's generous yet concise 15 songs. He spends a great deal of the newly-minted CD liner notes discussing this in detail, but suffice it to say these pieces encompass a wide and satisfactory variety of styles, from the jangle of "Tears Before Bedtime" to the impersonation of that other Elvis on "Town Cryer," which closes the proceedings.
Rykodisk's series of Costello remasterings have been uniform in delivering sonic satisfaction, and if Imperial Bedroom doesn't carry all the revelatory punch of the redone Get Happy, you can chalk it ail up to the fact that it sounded so damned delicious the first time around.
Even if you already own a vinyl edition, you'll still want this for the very fine set of nine extended play selections that encompass a trio of infectiously soulful covers — The Miracles' "From Head to Toe," The Merseybeats' "Really Mystified" (the stuff of many an E.C. fan's fantasy) and The Escorts' "Night Time" — as well as the album's title track itself, which was nowhere to be found on the LP. And that's a very, very Joycean thing of course. An epiphany, almost.