Trouser Press, October 1982
Trouser Press No. 78, October 1982
Not So Silly Love Songs
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
By Scott Isler
You expect more from an Elvis Costello album, and on Imperial Bedroom you certainly get it. The 15 songs here are so densely written and tightly arranged that the slightest alteration would probably cause the record's contents to fly apart like an overwound mainspring.
Bouncing back from his ambitious but indifferently received country album, Almost Blue, Costello has returned to pop with a vengeance. The music on Imperial Bedroom sounds like something you might hear on rock radio. Costello puts it to the service of his distinctive lyrics, though, transmuting accepted song structures in the process. The result is his most baroque album since Armed Forces, with a fascinating but intimidating sheen.
It may also be his most unified LP yet. As the title (with typically Costellian overtones of dominance and repression) suggests, Imperial Bedroom is monomaniacally concerned with love, or at least romance. The 5 musical case histories presented herein compendium of backfired emotional relationships: She-hates-him ("Beyond Belief"), they-hate-each-other ("Tears before Bedtime"), they-hate-each-other-and-themselves ("Shabby Doll"), etc. Whether Costello is still "angry" or not is irrelevant. He is restless, which is almost always more attention-getting than doing a James Taylor.
And Costello, who's nothing if not skillful, commands attention the instant the needle sets down on Imperial Bedroom's opening cut. "Beyond Belief" is a tour de force of internal rhyme, legato vocal phrasing, cumulative imagery, word play in extremis — in short, his usual bag of tricks, but here rendered with a confidence and expressiveness only hinted at before. The effect is reinforced by Geoff Emerick's production, placing Costello way up front, and by the Attraction's swirling crescendo of harmonic changes. More self-assurance: This is the first EC album to sport a lyric sheet — doubly important as, despite his high vocal relief, El enjoys slurring his words.
Words, words, words. They cover both sides of the inner sleeve, run together teletype-style with no punctuation, no break between songs and an occasional typo. The presentation exemplifies another Costelloism: the grudging bestowal. Printed lyrics facilitate communication, but what is Costello communicating? As in the past, much of his writing seems more concerned with linguistic gymnastics than underlying meaning.
He needn't rely on such grandstanding. "The Long Honeymoon," a surprisingly clearcut narrative, depicts a wife waiting for her (probably errant) husband with deft touches: "When the phone rang only once she took a dreadful fright." "Almost Blue" ("There's a girl here and she's almost you") is a careful neo-torch song arranged similarly to Costello's reading of "My Funny Valentine" on the Taking Liberties LP. "Boy with a Problem," another introspectively paced number, dissects its tangled interpersonal hang-ups with a sure songwriter's scalpel, even showing rare compassion for the second-person female (or is that because its lyrics are mostly by Squeeze's Chris Difford?).
"You Little Fool"'s mixture of pathos and contempt will be more reassuring to inflexible Costello fans. Other customary traits can be found in "Pidgin English" and "Tears before Bedtime" (aggression), "Shabby Doll" and "The Loved Ones" (threats, denigration), "Human Hands" (assertive longing), and "Town Cryer" (self-pity). The last-named sums up the album thematically with the line, "Love and unhappiness go arm in arm."
To offset such harsh sentiments, the music on Imperial Bedroom is deceptively pleasant. Steve Nieve's keyboards dominate the sound: cocktail/jazzy piano, and the samba-driven "Long Honeymoon" (with accordion), '60sish organ on "Beyond Belief", "Tears before Bedtime" and the Blonde on Blonde tribute "Man out of Time", '60s harpsichord on "You Little Fool." Nieve's orchestrations are also in a '60s vein, viz. the overblown strings and brass on "...And in Every Home" and "Town Cryer."
Familiar sonic trappings and other come-ons (sprightly tempos, falsetto vocal choruses, backward tracks — even a Spanish guitar solo on "Pidgin English") contrast with Costello's high-handed approach to song structure. "Pidgin English" is almost through-composed, its strains constantly permutating and difficult to grasp. "Boy with a Problem" also comes close to close to art-song turf, with unresolved phrase endings and a Brian Wilson breathiness (oops, another '60s referent) to the vocal. The lack of traditional verse/chorus divisions make a lot of Imperial Bedroom only superficially accessible, receding like a desert mirage when the listener tries to come to grips with it. Between the tricky music and the tricky lyrics, some people may feel Costello's cat-and-mouse game isn't worth playing.
The loss will be their own. Imperial Bedroom is too idiosyncratic to launch any trends, and possibly too involuted for mass appeal. But it can't — or rather won't — be ignored, just as the Beach Boy's Pet Sounds (another album of brilliant compositions that eluded the public upon release) had to be redeemed by history. Costello's blend of "pop" music with unpop imagery and organization is in synch with his times, grounding today's uncertainties on yesterday's verities. If he sometimes seems unsure what he wants to say, well, who doesn't (especially on his chosen topic)? At least he still believes in words.
Note: In the print version of this review, the second-to-last paragraph used the phrase "thorough-composed", which was likely a typo, and probably should have read "through-composed". This has been corrected above. (See Wikipedia: Through-composed)