Few artists have altered their personal styles with as much chameleonic grace as Elvis Costello. his Buddy Holly on-battery-acid tinged debut album segued into the Farfisa beat of the even angrier This Year's Model. The next year or so brought the Abba-influenced (Costello claims) Armed Forces and the Stax-flavored Get Happy!!
And while last year's collection of country standards failed to recapture the vitality of the originals, the album Almost Blue was a sincere effort by Costello to celebrate his love for Nashville and its music.
But with Imperial Bedroom, Costello has produced his masterpiece, an album with a mellower, less flamboyant Costello but featuring his boldest music yet.
Bedroom, as with all previous albums. continues Costello's obsession with the intricacies of relationships This time, though, the songwriter depicts these relationships, analyzing them with more compassion than usual, but never once with a hint of the angry young man of 1977 sneering underneath. At times the songs dabble in pure sentiment (as in the heartbreakingly melancholy "Almost Blue"), but the same can be said of the Beatles' "If I Fell."
The mood of the album is foreshadowed almost immediately in "Beyond Belief," the opener. Here, the narrator yearns for love while knowing all the risks involved. As with the other songs, the lyrical climax comes with the musical climax. Suddenly, Costello exclaims "I've got a feeling I'm gonna' get a lot of grief" as the Attractions churn out a barrage of panoramic support. The fade out sounds like a man falling into a bottomless pit, which, of course, is the whole point.
In Costello's world, it seems, domesticity is a bald faced lie. Husbands cheat on their wives. Lovers soon become haters. Men and women try constantly to get the digs on each other, and in "Kid About It," Costello sings "Fight so frail — making love tooth and nail."
If all this sounds cliched, you're right. But it's a genuine credit to Costello's pop sensibilities and powers as a lyricist that he can milk such standard material for so much more. The misbegotten lover in "Human Hands" talks to walls after his girl leaves, and they answer back, as well. The cuckolded wife of "The Long Honeymoon" asks for consolation from a baby who isn't old enough to speak. And one woman reveals her love by declaring. "I've waited all my life for just a little death."
The selections run through a spectrum of thematic range, from the R&B sing-along of "Tears Before Bedtime," and the light funk of "Shabby Doll," to the Sgt. Pepperish whimsy of "...and In Every Home," and poignant balladry of the end piece, "Town Cryer."
The Attractions once again prove themselves to be a great backing band as it follows Costello through his labyrinth of mood changes with stupefying ease. The alternately fluid and crackling rhythm section of bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas give Costello a firm foundation upon which to showcase his impeccable phrasing. Keyboardist Steve Nieve is more upfront than usual, flashing his versatile bag of tricks much as a Las Vegas dealer shuffles so many cards. "Shabby Doll" is staccato piano bashing, whereas "Almost Blue," is smoky blues fills. And the virtual cathedral of sound churning from Nieve's organ in "Man Out of Time" takes one's breath away from the first listening.
Even with the talents of the Attractions and the wealth of songcraftsmanship present, the most remarkable thing about Imperial Bedroom is Costello's voice. The choice of new producer Geoff Emerick over old hand Nick Lowe was a crucial and inevitable move; Lowe always has a tendency to play up rhythm at the expense of vocal clarity. Emerick has brought Costello's voice to the high end of the mix, making the lyric sheet superfluous.
The singing is by far the most flexible instrument on the record. In the last year or more since the release of Trust, Costello has learned the art of fine restraint, and is able to use vocal subtlety as a fine-honed tool with which to hook the listener. The vocals trip effortlessly over the complicated wordplay that adorns the songs here, often singing against the rhythm, and creating new ones themselves.
MOR it ain't.