Four of the very best songwriters to emerge from Britain's New Wave have shown a growing fascination with the refined songwriting era of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. The new albums written by Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Squeeze's Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook all bare the telltale traces. Tricky syllables are cleverly arranged over jazzy melodies and backed by tinkling piano and sweeping strings. At the same time the songwriters have retained their rock 'n' roll iconoclasms and rhythm & blues backbeat.
These young Brits are obviously attracted to the high level of craft that flourished in mid-century American show music. Yet conflicts arise. Songwriting contrivances and artifices are accepted and even relished in show music, while rock 'n' roll demands the illusion that each song is a spontaneous burst of uncensored confession. While the new albums by Costello and Jackson often seem caught awkwardly between self-conscious craftsmanship and convincing confessions, they also contain some of the year's richest pop songs.
Imperial Bedroom (Columbia FC 38157), Costello's eighth album in six years, is his most ambitious effort yet. He unveils a new producer (Geoff Emerick) and a new bold approach to vocals, arrangements, melodies and lyrics. Yet Imperial Bedrooms falls short of Costello's best work, his own cleverness often muffling the impact of the songs.
Costello affects a dozen different voices and then overdubs them in ricocheting choral shoot-outs. His longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve, wrote the orchestrations that often wrap the Beatlesque guitars with horns and strings right off a Frank Sinatra record. Since Costello constantly varies the melodies, hardly any two verses are the same.
For the first time, Costello's lyrics do not attack romance as a broad form of "emotional fascism," but examine his own specific relationships, prompting surprising admissions from this master of misanthropy: "I would have waited all my life," he claims, "just to make love out of something other than spite." And: "O Darling, how I miss you; I'm just a shadow of my former selfishness." He even describes marital problems from the woman's perspective.
Unfortunately, Costello's move to more vulnerable lyrics is counteracted by his move to more Baroque music. "Human Hands" contains his most explicit expression of romantic love, but the vocal bounces gymnastically atop the crammed-together syllables. These operetta acrobatics distance the voice from the key confession: "I love you more than slightly; although I've never said it like this before." Many of the 15 songs have pointed lyrics that are turned aside by the overly clever singing and production. These songs may very well come into focus during Costello's current tour, which is scheduled to stop at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Tuesday.
The best moments on Imperial Bedroom are the most understated. At the beginning of "Shabby Doll" Costello describes a tawdry affair in a stunned hush. On "Almost Blue" he betrays the pain over his marriage's missed opportunities. In "Boy With a Problem," lyrics by Chris Difford of Squeeze, the sensitive subject of sexual impotence is nicely understated, and the song becomes an insightful look at a marriage under pressure.
Joe Jackson doesn't have quite as much talent as Costello, but he struggles with the same time warp in his music. Last year Jackson released Jumpin' Jive, a respectable revival of Louis Jourdan and Cab Calloway tunes from the '40s. This year he has tried to write and perform his own songs in the same style on Night and Day (A&M SP-4906). The album is much more successful in the swinging, sinuous music than in its overly serious, straining lyrics. To underline the anachronistic music, there are no guitars on Night and Day. Instead the album is dominated instrumentally by Jackson doubletracked on keyboards, vibes and alto sax and by percussionist Sue Hodjopoulos. The barrio-salsa of the percussion contrasts nicely with the otherwise stately ballroom music.
Jackson's melodies and chord progressions have always been captivating, but never so much as here. The five fast songs on the "night side" successfully mix the sophisticated jazz piano changes with the hyperactive congas. The four slow songs on the "day side" unfurl elegantly and then gather to grand climaxes. Unfortunately Jackson's lyrics — quite biting at New Wave tempos in the past — are a bit clumsy in the more deliberate approach of his current music. The paranoia lyrics of "Target" and "Cancer" might work if backed out fast, but fall apart spread over a droll cha-cha beat. The rich, complex music to "Real Men" and "TV Age" is sabotaged by simple-minded attacks on the easy targets of machismo and video junkies. The record's best songs are "Another World" and "Chinatown," where the music's journey into other cultures is matched by the narrative journey into other neighborhoods. Jackson is scheduled to be at Merriweather Post Pavilion Aug. 31, with songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.