A dense one, this. To properly evaluate E.C.'s new disc, one submitted to a dozen listenings, consulted various texts on semeiology, modernism, musicology and agoraphobia, exhaustively cross-referenced the lyrics with those on previous Costello albums and made a cursory check for backmasking. The hard-won conclusion: it's not bad.
It's not This Year's Model either, but records with that kind of clarity and power seem to be out of everyone's reach these days, not just Costello's. What do you do once you've fashioned a savvy critique of modern society into brilliant pop music, as Costello has? Repeat yourself? Or write love songs?
Costello has opted for the first, more or less, and Imperial Bedroom reprises his fundamental attack on the modern dilemma. In his world, as in ours, a series of cultural exchanges have been made — shared values for personal fears, compassion for domination, trust for bad faith. A society based on commodities has become a society based on spectacle — having gives way to appearing — and its inhabitants, now twice removed from what they really want, flounder in the confusion. And they can't even talk to one another about it, because language has broken down.
Insanely prolific and gifted with an apparently inexhaustible sensibility, Costello is able to disguise thematic repetition beneath endlessly inventive wordplay and musical eclecticism. The difference here is mainly one of emphasis; he's always known about the indivisibility of the political and the personal, so he moves easily back and forth between the former — This Year's Model — and, on Imperial Bedroom, the latter. More than ever, Costello's protean resentment is directed outward, but what he has to say to the Other in his world — "All I ever want is to fall into your human hands" is atypically vulnerable and heartfelt. For himm love means recognizing a diseased society's intrusion into private life and throwing off your chains. A simple idea, yet the best songs here delineate it with convincing complexity.
Musically, he goes for baroque, sacrificing melodic clarity too much of the time. Though he rarely overarranges the music to the point of making it entirely false, it's still overarranged, occasioning The New York Times to invoke silly comparisons with Cole Porter, when this is mainly just another instance of an ambitious songwriter cramming too many ideas together at once.
But what the hell, the bespectacled runt still has his heart in the right place.