Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom aptly begins: "History repeats the same conceits." Costello, like Bruce Springsteen, has built his career out of variations on the theme of sexual betrayal (though without Springsteen's romanticism), and his latest album repeats that conceit through its 15 songs.
Perhaps his bleakest album yet, Imperial Bedroom recounts tales of sexual failure ("Shabby Doll"), philandering husbands ("The Long Honeymoon"), violence ("...and In Every Home," "Little Savage") and all-too-adulterous teenagers ("You Little Fool") that are frequently soaked in alcohol and the pity of unrequited love and impossible dreams.
Costello's reportage of the war between men and women is nasty as always, with the brunt of his wrath being directed at women as always. (The album cover, Sal Forlenza's painting Snakecharmer & Reclining Octopus, gives that part of it away.)
But for the first time in Costello's history. men are seen as equal partners in denial and deceit. "The Long Honeymoon," "Man Out of Time" and "Boy With a Problem" all implicate the male of.the species in the crimes of the heart — they reveal a maturing in Costello's sensibility toward his chosen theme that finally equals the maturity of his lyrics.
No one in rock music has the feel for words that Costello does, and Imperial Bedroom is filled with his verbal gymnastics. From the sound of a line like "You find you fit this Identikit completely" in "Beyond Belief" to the word play of "I'm a little down / With a lifetime to go" in "Town Cryer," Costello's lyrics are a joy to listen to and, for the first time, to read.
Unfortunately, the music that frames those lyrics lacks both their imagination and their enjoyability. Only the ticking tension of "Beyond Belief," the rocking "Little Savage" and the Rodgers-and-Hart-inspired "Almost Blue" have tunes that you can, or even want to, remember after the album's over.
The more Costello records, the more evident it becomes that he used up his musical ideas in his first three albums The pleasure afforded by Get Happy! and Trust came from the energy he and his band. the Attractions, put into the songs and from the tricks his production played on the musical formulas.
But Imperial Bedroom sounds enervated, both in composition and performance. Costello's songs, virtually all of which plod at mid-tempo, go nowhere that his tunes haven't gone before. And the Attractions sound more like a back-up band than an integral part of the sound.
Whatever hope one might have placed in Geoff Emerick's production is quickly betrayed as well. Emerick has buried much of Costello's music in a haphazard melange of styles ranging from Phil Spector to George Martin to Ray Davies. Aside from doing the songs themselves no favors, this production mishmash destroys any conceptual unity the album might have had.
Costello's fascination with emotional fascism and the brutality of love is a tricky thing. When Springsteen (the comparison is inevitable) gets passionate about passion, he frequently turns out his best work ("Backstreets," "The River," "Point Blank").
When Costello gets mad, however, more often than not he gets muddy. That was the problem with his third album, Armed Forces; despite its lyrical brilliance, it's the problem with his new album as well.
For Elvis Costello, sex is not fun. Unfortunately, neither is Imperial Bedroom.