On his first album Elvis Costello observed, "There's no such thing as an original sin." On his second he added, more privately, "You can't show me any kind of hell that I don't know already." This was the man who said he was only qualified to write about two subjects, revenge and guilt. But Costello, as of his eighth album, is still going strong. He's turned up some new forms of hell — and its counterpart, for a change. Nowadays revenge and guilt (Elvis's own, anyway) hardly figure in his work at all.
My Aim Is True (1977) was a good record by a bright guy who couldn't pull the girls, but by the time of This Year's Model (1978), Costello could identify with the small-town beauties who'd forever been tying him in knots. It was the beat contempt-equals-self-contempt album since Highway 61 Revisited because, of all such bright guys to become pop stars (and get, if not happy, then at least lucky), Costello and Dylan have been the brightest. And Elvis was the more able to capitalize on his ironic new prospect because, for all the hard knocks, he's never had much taste for sexism. It was his essential-generosity of spirit (the Jake Riviera-inspired paranoia of the time notwithstanding) that enabled E.C. to make Armed Forces (1978). If Costello's emotional fascism idea wasn't new (consider Erich Fromm), the pop music he fashioned from it was still an achievement. Armed Forces lacked immediacy only because Costello had risen far enough above his rancor to see it as symptomatic of a game that takes two little Hiders to play. Armed Forces was Costello's last revenge-and-guilt record, synthesized from his experiences as Aim's bowman and Model's target. The venom that laced the first and saturated the second — and its lethal destroyer-escort singles. "Watching the Detectives" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" — had been formalized and neutralized on Armed Forces. The thrilling and dead serious version of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" that closed it marked the conclusion of the first period in Costello's music.
A new period began with Get Happy!! (1980). one 10-song side of which constitutes Elvis's beet album. E.C. admirers tend to pass it by because the sound is cramped, because the programming is in. tense, and because the other side comprises his weakest work to date ("Riot Act" excepted). The other side (beginning with "Love for Tender" and including "Possession," "King Horse,""Clowntime Is Over." "New Amsterdam." and "High Fidelity") thrills and exhausts with its nonstop epigrammar and barrage of fevered r&b modes (confirming suspicions of Elvis's covert Invictus-worship first aroused by his Fender chords on "Pay It Back"). Episodic because breaking stories kept bombarding and baffling its author (there could be no refuge in the formalism that had cleansed him at the time of Forces), Get Happy!! fed on something better than a new idea: a new feeling. Elvis had fallen in love!
Trust (1981) was almost as good. Costello was just as obsessively interesting as before, and becoming quite likable too. Having explored the boundaries of his frustration and anger, he had come to realize that a life worth living still existed beyond them. Now Costello began taking some responsibility to go with the liberties. His printed apologies were occasionally embarrassing, in the manner of an AA confession (and many soft-headed American fans lapped them up). The new songs, however, were gracious, perceptive, and proud. "New Lace Sleeves" and "Watch Your Step" are as wise and kind as anything a performer has given to his audience in recent memory — and a lot more useful than, say, "Forever Young."
But Trust, like Happy!!, was miscellany. If Costello had a vice, it was still his formalist tendency, which was not appeased by occasional cover versions, by his jewellike genre pieces (notably the flawless "Stranger in the House"), or even by Almost Blue (1981), a rigorously faithful collection of country standards. Costello still felt the need to do for Happy!! and Trust what Forces had done for Aim and Model. What he came up with, Imperial Bedroom, covers much the same terrain as Armed Forces. Where else would emotional fascists play but in the imperial bedroom? Who doubts that the "big man's shirt" in "Town Cryer" is green? like Forces, Bedroom's been hailed as a departure, even though both albums close their cycles. The difference is that nowhere in Happy!! or Trust is there a boil comparable to the one that needed lancing through Aim and Model.
Some reviews have suggested that Costello is becoming a "classical" songwriter, like Lorenz Hart, but Imperial Bedroom doesn't stand up to that kind of comparison either. Most of the melodies are ordinary (so forget Richard Rodgers, please). The production — by Geoff Emerick, protégé of Beatles producer George Martin — is swathed in a portly reverb that flatters neither the Attractions nor Steve Nieve's Beatlemania-style orchestrations. And several cuts ("Boy with a Problem," "Tears Before Bedtime," "...and in Every Home") are tainted with the deathly influence of Costello's Beatle-imitating buddies. Squeeze's Difford & Tilbrook. If Costello's idea of the Beatles is "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," his idea of Rodgers & Hart cannot even be guessed at. Lorenz Hart did not confuse pronouns, tenses, or characters. Costello is a classical songwriter, but in an entirely different tradition: that of Phil Spector, Holland/Dozier/Holland, and Dylan. His songs don't necessarily parse; the stories don't hang together; the feminine rhymes are invariably imperfect. Hart had to keep his voices and stories straight because he wrote for musicals: the characters in his songs were singing to each other on a stage. It doesn't matter if the people in Elvis Costello songs — the men and women in "Shot with His Own Gun," or Imperial Bedroom's "You Little Fool" and "Man Out of Time" — are individual or composite, if they merge or multiply from verse to verse. These songs are genuine modern classics, but they are quite unlike the Rodgers & Hart kind. Which is not to say Elvis is incapable of writing a classic song in the classic sense. For "Watching the Detectives," Costello pointed that knife-sharp Hasselblad down toward the end of the bed and produced a portrait of remarkable clarity. As a study of fascism. "Night Rally" is without equal. And "Shipbuilding," a new number he performed at Forest Hills on Friday, is an astounding antiwar song, made richer and sharper by its specifically working-class milieu.
What is great and classical about Costello's work isn't new as of Imperial Bedroom. It has been there from the start, among and along with those ill-disciplined syllables that flash by like something shooting down Mott Street on Chinese New Year. Imperial Bedroom's innovation doesn't lie in its unnecessary formalism or (a different thing altogether) its faulty classicism: this is the first time that E.C. has attempted to discover what produced the people who "never found out what the kisser was for." In "Town Cryer," the ballad that closes Bedroom, Elvis declares, "I'm never gonna cry again / I'm gonna be as strong as them," but he knows what comes next, when "suddenly you really fall to pieces." In concert, the song sounded revelatory, eerily different, and final. It was as if, having rushed past the cagey admissions of "Strict Time" and "You'll Never Be A Man," he had ended the game with a self-portrait so unerring that neither he nor his listeners would ever be able to forget it. I got the strange feeling that the Elvis Costello we know may have made his last record. Could that radiant entity have been merely the chrysalis of an emerging Declan McManus?