British New Wave rock king Elvis Costello may not have enjoyed a tremendous amount of commercial success last fall with his album of Nashville country standards, but that sabbatical from rock seems to have had a lasting impact on him as a performer.
As a result, Costello and his band The Attractions have come up with their most musically appealing album in the new release Imperial Bedroom (Columbia FC 38157).
Where before Costello charged through songs at a breakneck pace that left the lyrics often unintelligible and the New Wave rock arrangements sounding monotonously similar, the 15 tunes on the new album benefit from a more varied and reflective approach.
Production chores this time were handled by Geoff Emerick, best-known as engineer for The Beatles and more recently on Paul McCartney's Tug of War. Thanks to him, Imperial Bedroom has a much cleaner, yet fuller sound than past Costello recordings.
This is particularly evident in the instrumental backings, where the work of drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and keyboardist Steve Neive provides the album with a variety missing in much of Costello's music. Neive, who also handled the album's orchestration, is quite impressive, with his piano and organ dominating on most selections.
Unlike Almost Blue, the album of country cover versions, this collection consists totally of material penned by Costello, with Chris Difford of Squeeze joining to write the lyrics for one song, "Boy With A Problem."
Lyrically, Imperial Bedroom shows Costello (born Declan Patrick McManus some 27 years ago) at his' finest as he deals with familiar territory — affairs of the heart and bedroom.
His cynicism has been tempered slightly by a more pronounced romanticism (perhaps part of the country influence), but his clever and incisive wordplay remains intact. My favorite line, from the song "Town Cryer," has the put-upon singer declaring "I'm a little down with a lifetime to go."
Costello has matured as a songwriter in another respect, too. His melodies are more consistent and more consistently appealing. They're also a far cry from what you might expect a New Wave rocker to turn out. "Almost Blue" (not included on the album of the same name) is a straightforward torch song reminiscent of the kind of ballads popular in the '30s and '40s, "...And In Every Home" comes off as a British Music Hall number complete with a very Beatlesque orchestral backing and "The Long Honeymoon" brings to mind a continental movie theme with its Parisian-flavored accordion backing.
Still, the best song on the album — the moderate rocker "Shabby Doll" — comes closer to Costello's typically tough sound. His braying lead vocal is backed by ominous-sounding bass and guitar and a staccato piano riff that adds an almost oriental touch.
Imperial Bedroom may not be a totally satisfying album — some of the tunes still wander a bit too much melodically and the lyrics are sometimes unnecessarily obscure — but it's the best Elvis Costello has produced to date. Perhaps this LP finally will win this challenging British star the wide acceptance by American radio that so far has undeservedly eluded him.