This album represents something more than the most successful pop music Elvis Costello has made since Armed Forces; it's the first album by any of the original British new wavers to fully reckon with recording technology in a pop song context. Though claims are now being made for Costello as a great pop writer in the tradition of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, such comparisons both underestimate and miss the point of this record's achievement. The proper antecedents of Imperial Bedroom are Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, recordings in which the craft of composition is inseparable from the craft with which they are recorded, so much so that it is difficult to say where one process begins and the other leaves off.
There's a simpler way to put it: with a couple of exceptions ("Almost Blue," "You Little Fool") you need not expect many cover versions of these superbly constructed songs, because Costello's method of writing them isn't limited to staff paper. Like all the greatest writers of the rock era, he makes use of every technological facility available to him (kudos here to producer Geoff Emerick — one shudders to think what Nick Lowe's sonic ineptitude might have done to such sophisticated music): Steve Nieve's marvelous piano and organ playing; Costello's nasal vocal delivery; Emerick's mixes in which the voice and keyboard float around one another, like characters in dialogue; and the full orchestral scoring on several numbers are part of the bedrock conceptions of the songs.
Additionally, there is Costello's use of aural montage — not just segues between songs, as on East Side Story, the Costello-produced Squeeze LP, but fade-ins and -outs within songs, the most intelligent extension of such ideas since the aforementioned Beatles albums. There's nothing radical about what Costello is doing here — which may signify one of his limitations — but he's picking up the threads that have been left dangling for the better part of a decade. In its ability to fuse pop structure and aural ambition, without sinking to the cliches of Asia-level art-rock, Imperial Bedroom is just this side of awesome.
Nevertheless, Costello remains on the far side of paradise. His ambitions may be the equal of the Beatles, but his abilities aren't. Most insurmountably, where the Beatles were blessed with two great singers and a competent one, Costello has taken a half-dozen albums to perfect a style that's more-or-less listenable. Secondly, where the Beatles' (or any great artist's) vision is expansive — always extending the personal — the essence of Costello's style is contraction, spotting the personal elements in universal situations and proceeding to pore over these details obsessively. One reason my favorite Costello record remains Armed Forces is that that was the last time he seemed prepared to tackle the world at large, rather than addressing a cult. Maybe this is an inherent problem for a humanist misanthrope like Costello (as it sometimes was for a misanthrope humanist like John Lennon), but in the end, it's easier to excuse his lack of generosity than to forgive it. There's something a bit mean about Costello — symbolized by his first-ever lyric sheet, included with this album, being printed in an utterly unreadable form — that limits his work.
There are all kinds of allusions to the Beatles here, from musical paraphrases to the sing-song "P.S. I Love You," at the end of "Pidgin English" (and Emerick, of course, cut his engineering spurs working with that band), but Costello lacks the panoramic vision that could contain that ambition, and make it something more than a clever exercise. Imperial Bedroom deserves to be honored for its technical triumphs, and for its share of memorable songs ("Shabby Doll," "You Little Fool," "...And In Every Home," "Man Out of Time," "Pidgin English"). Yet it can't really be compared fairly to Sgt. Pepper's or any of rock's other masterpieces; in the end, Imperial Bedroom is an Eighties rendition of Love's Forever Changes: music that is truly timeless and unfortunately trivial.