No one took Elvis Costello seriously when he recorded "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" and "My Funny Valentine," in the early days. After all, he was the angry young man. Then he started flirting with country music, wrote a few of his own, went to Nashville to pay respects to George Jones and even cut a country album with Jones' producer. Billy Sherrill. By the time he told Tom Snyder last year that he aspired to the type of music mastered by Cole Porter, people began to believe that Costello fancied himself as more than point man for the New Wave. Now Costello and the Attractions have released Imperial Bedroom, at once a singularly creative extension of everything that's come before as well as a leap into pop writing that no one has ever consistently achieved.
Costello's lyrics have always transcended craftsmanship (unlike recent Squeeze) and cleverness (unlike recent Nick Lowe.) With Imperial Bedroom, he's pared back some of the wordplay, dropped his guard and come up with a series of songs that view domestic life with his usual sharp eye and a heretofore obscured heart.
From country music, Costello's drawn directness and more distinctive phrasing. For the first see the lyrics to "Almost Blue," the title cut that wasn't, or "Tears Before Bedtime." For the latter, listen to the way he sings "Shabby Doll," and stretches and turns his words throughout. From his past work, Costello has kept the tendency towards the slightly tortured but compelling line, like this one from "Pidgin English:" "From your own back yard to the land of exotica / From the truth society to neurotic erotica."
What's new is Costello's insistence on becoming a distinctive pop singer. It works well for most of the tunes, especially "Shabby Doll." It doesn't work on a few, like "Almost Blue." Costello has perfected his own phrasing. He doesn't have Sinatra's pipes. Not yet anyway.
On Imperial Bedroom Costello puts more trust in his voice and words than ever before. For the most part, he forsakes the big beat for a more subtle, but no less powerful effect. His scenes of domestic life are real without being mundane, traditional yet unsettling in their honesty. Costello and the Attractions are out there alone with this grown-up music. No one else is even in the same league.
A few more unconnected notes. "Man Out of Time," "Beyond Belief," "Shabby Doll," "Pidgin English" and Town Cryer" at least are masterpieces. Elvis' output continues to amaze. There are 15 songs on the record. Playing time is over 50 minutes. and four of the songs break the four minute barrier. The horns, strings and accordion, scattered here and there, orchestrated by Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, may throw you on the first hearing or two, but they're just right. Costello has included a lyric sheet this time. You lose some of the delightful ambiguity, but the album hits you quicker as a result. Finally, Elvis either has a drinking problem or recently survived one. There are too many references on the record for coincidence.
And, oh yeah, buy this album.