The image of Elvis Costello as an angry young man has changed drastically since his American debut in 1977. From New Wave ringmaster to country/western crooner, his influences were wide and varied yet somehow he managed to combine them in a unique style that was not only original, but innovative as well.
With the release of Imperial Bedroom, his eighth album, Costello dispels the angry image and reveals himself to he rock's most important social commentator.
One never quite knows where Elvis stands on the subject of love or even if he wishes to take a stand on the issue. If his lyrics are any indication, he's been burned more times than the rubber on the wheels of one of Springsteen's Chevrolets.
In the past, Costello has been bitter and determined to tell us of his terrible heartache through his sinister insights into the dark side of human nature. On his 1978 LP, This Year's Model, he contemptuously snarls "love is like a tumor / you've got to cut it out" and exposes a masochistic streak when he sings "I don't want to be your lover / I just want to be your victim." These vicious sentiments, however, can be chalked up to an inexperienced Elvis griping over a good loving gone bad, very bad in this case.
Imperial Bedroom unveils a more mature, understanding Elvis although he occasionally has his moments of relapse: love and unhappiness go hand in hand," he proclaims in "Town Cryer," the closing number from the new album in which Costello dons the role of village soothsayer prophetically warning "isn't it a pity that you're going to get hurt." With such preconceived notions on the value of love and the price one pays, not even Romeo and Juliet would stand a chance.
But the overall impression on the new album isn't pessimistic or even sarcastic. Gone, for the most part, are the cynical reflections so common among his earlier works; in their place stands a more objective view; one with which the singer shows himself to be thoughtful and compassionate in his observations.
This new, subdued attitude of Costello's is most apparent on "Shabby Doll," a bluesy declaration of his own bad behavior in which he sings "the boy I used to be / showed no sign of sympathy." To prove that he's no longer randomly lashing out his scorn he admits that "the cats out of the bag / but won't show his claws."
In "The Long Honeymoon," Elvis examines the suspicious speculations of a woman who fears her husband is being unfaithful. Costello takes us along through a cerebral journey of her thoughts, from the first hint of infidelity ("he was late this time last week") to the final rationalization of her predicament ("maybe she should just pretend").
Instead of condemning the husband for the careless covering of his adulterous tracks, this time Costello sides with the victimized wife who "never thought her love could be as strong as this." The result is a perceptive realization that there are indeed two sides to every coin, a cliche Costello has refused to admit until now.
Corporate stress is the theme of "Man out of Time," the reeling, majestic centerpiece on side one. Costello casts a pitiable eye on a business executive whose shoot for-the-stars ambition deteriorates into self-deprecation and flustered paranoia
The high heel he used to be / has been ground down. / And he listens for the footsteps / that would follow him around.
The outcome of success isn't always so sweet, Costello is telling us, as the song's subject questions his worthiness when "he stands to be insulted and pays for the privilege."
Side two opens with some sprightly guitar strumming and heavy-duty drum work that lay the foundation for the pop arrangement of "The Loved Ones." The cheerful melody contrasts sharply with the seriousness of the message which deals with the pitfalls of fame and drug addiction. Costello may tell the song's young junkie to "spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics," but those words don't apply to the singer as he proceeds to bombard us with the skillful wordplay that's evident throughout the album.
"You could have been a danger to the boys and girls," Costello sings, referring to the influence a public personality has on youthful admirers, "but now you're a danger to yourself." As to the decadent lifestyle of the immature young star, Costello only asks, "What would the loved ones say?"
In "Boy With a Problem," co-written with Squeeze's Chris Difford, Costello yields himself to accepting the stale relationship with his girlfriend, even though they have nothing left to talk about:
Days in silence try my temper / Nights spent drinking to remember / how memories are always tender
But the love affair he sings about in "Pidgin English" is more candid and honest, although equally as unsatisfying:
It all ends up in a slanging match / with body talk and bruises. / A change is better that a rest, / silly beggars can't be choosers.
It's a futile argument for sure, but the singer can't afford to be picky.
Although It's doubtful that any of Costello's tunes will be covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, et. al., many of his songs have that sophisticated appeal more at home on the Las Vegas stage than within the confines of radio. That might explain his lack of chart success. In any event, Imperial Bedroom establishes Costello as one of the most important, certainly the most innovative, singer/songwriters of our time.