Given the newish trend of artists playing a classic album in concert, it's not a huge surprise to learn Elvis Costello has joined the club. I can think of a dozen of his LPs I would happily hear him revisit in full, and Costello has always been keen to mix it up onstage, as on his Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows that had no predetermined setlist. But 1982's Imperial Bedroom is not the obvious choice around which to base a tour. It's not celebrating an anniversary or getting another reissue, and it didn't have any big hits (Costello's first US Top 40 single would come the following year with "Everyday I Write The Book"). Imperial Bedroom was also Costello & The Attractions' first album to be labored over in the studio. For three months the band experimented with orchestral flourishes and tape techniques under producer Geoff Emerick, an engineer on ambitious Beatles classics like Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper's. "The process of making this record was both a 'do-it-yourself' education in using the studio like blank manuscript paper on which to work out the arrangements," Costello would later recall in the liner notes of a Rykodisc reissue.
Moreover Costello & The Attractions' seventh LP (in five years, incidentally) wasn't misunderstood or maligned upon its release: it topped Pazz & Jop in '82 and was deemed a masterpiece by Rolling Stone, which Columbia referenced winkingly in ads that asked: "Masterpiece?". So while this run of a dozen shows (it would've been 13 had he not cancelled Pittsburgh in solidarity with the striking Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) isn't meant to reform public opinion about an underrated work, it should at least remind people to revisit one of the dustier corners of a legendary catalog. Thirty-four years later there's certainly no need for the question mark.
At last night's NYC tour closer, the second of two sold-out nights at the Beacon Theater, the reformed punk was backed by his longtime Imposters — the Attractions' inimitable Steve Nieve on piano and Pete Thomas on drums, and Davey Faragher who replaced original bassist Bruce Thomas back in the '90s — along with backup vocalists Kitten Kuroi and YahZarah. In a clever nod to the album cover, a Barney Bubbles painting titled Snakecharmer & Reclining Octopus, dayglo Picasso-fied revisions of Costello's many albums appeared onscreen behind the musicians during the night. Meanwhile, the setlist was far from a run through of the album in order. Since it was technically billed as Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers, promising "the songs that led in and out of that velvet-trimmed playhouse," other chambers received plenty of attention.
Among those chambers was unlikely opening number "Night Rally," a This Year's Model track that was omitted from the US release. And there were a few more left-field choices (including a soulful cover of a song by the late Allen Toussaint) before getting to the nitty gritty of the evening.
"Welcome to the Christmas Eve edition of Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers, the show that finds the way from the war room to the bedroom," Costello offered from under a bright red fedora. "Look at your little faces. It's just like Christmas Eve and you're just like waiting for Santa to come down the chimney and see what he brings you. Are you sick of it yet?"
"Nooo," the crowd shouted back.
"Not the show! You know what I'm talking about."
Oh, the election. We're trying to forget about that for a few hours, Elvis!
If you're familiar with the widely available Imperial Bedroom demos, you know tracks like "Town Cryer" and "Man Out Of Time" were originally conceived as much faster songs. Hearing them at different tempos can sometimes reveal new depths, emphasize different phrasings. Costello strapped on his Jazzmaster for a slowed-down, funereal "Tears Before Bedtime" that succeeded along these lines. "I know the name on the tip of your tongue / And I know that accusing look / Everybody knows I've been so wrong / That's the problem and here's the hook." Kuroi and YahZarah added gorgeous harmonies. "Almost Blue," the lugubrious Chet Baker-inspired throwback, was another obvious highlight, strummed by Costello on acoustic guitar alongside only Nieve. He wrote the trad-pop ballad after recording his unlikely country covers album of the same name.
"...And In Every Home," Bedroom's most Beatlesque moment thanks in no small part to a 40-piece orchestra, got its first outing in over 33 years on this tour; a golden-suited Nieve, who wowed with his dramatic fingerwork whenever he was onstage, recreated the strings with synths and a laptop. (Likewise, the cheating-spouse narrative "The Long Honeymoon" seemed to have preprogrammed accordion.) Album outtake "Seconds Of Pleasure" was played for just the fifth time ever. (Fun fact: Costello once offered it to ABBA's Frida for her first English solo album, but producer Phil Collins apparently rejected it.) Some of the songs from this era are admittedly a little fussy for a rock concert — Costello joked that the last four or five weeks of recording Imperial Bedroom "were me locked in the studio with a big bag of weed, overdubbing millions of backing vocals that didn't make any sense" — but in the setting of NYC's majestic uptown theater, they worked.
If there are any Imperial Bedroom songs casual fans know beyond "Almost Blue," they're "Man Out Of Time" and "Beyond Belief," as both have rightly been included on various career anthologies. The former deals with a politician caught in a sex scandal; the latter is harder to parse but does deliver one of the great anxious Costello vocal recordings as he dances from the lowest to the highest points of his register, swallowing phrases that overlap one another. "I never was much good at writing love songs," Costello explained, "like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift."
Imperial Bedroom is stylistically varied, a little too long, and cynical in the way it articulates the private turmoil of failed relationships. In other words, it's an Elvis Costello album. But the show's generous running time — it was nearly three hours — meant there was room for the legend to road test three songs from A Face In The Crowd, his planned musical based on the 1957 Elia Kazan movie. Costello sat at the piano for these, and a third singer (Ace Ono) joined the rest of the band on the rousing "American Mirror." The show, he said, is about "a Hillbilly singer that comes out of nowhere and gets put on television." This led to the inevitable political endorsement, since it was Christmas Eve after all: "If you're gonna vote for a fucking orange clown, you can vote for Ronald McDonald."
If you wanna see bespectacled, retirement-age, white guys lose their shit, go to an Elvis Costello concert and wait for "Pump It Up." That and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?" made for an uplifting coda. In the end, the conceit of the evening, along with the new material, had primed the audience for the hits. Here's hoping he does Armed Forces next.