Album of the Week, March 29: Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

EC-IBfrontBy the time he released his seventh album, Elvis Costello had established himself as a force to be reckoned with. After a stunning debut, he churned out a steady series of albums that each had a significant number of critics crying “masterpiece!” The erstwhile Declan MacManus proved a deft hand at a wide array of musical styles, applying his encyclopedic knowledge and broad tastes to post-punk, art pop, honky-tonk, country, and R&B. Through it all, the Attractions proved themselves one of the finest bands in the business, adapting to all the twists and turns and lending a solid consistency to every disc. Costello’s smart, wry lyrics were the other constant, analyzing and often skewering politics both personal and governmental. After five strong albums with producer Nick Lowe and the fascinating country covers experiment Almost Blue, he entered the studio with a set of tracks composed on piano and never tested live. He also engaged Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick to produce, bringing in the right talent to juggle the complex sounds he wanted to explore. The result set the template for his next 30 years of music and proved that everything he had absorbed and disseminated to date was in preparation for his bold reinvention of pop music.

Title Imperial Bedroom
Act Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Label Columbia Release Date July 2, 1982
Producer Geoff Emerick (from an original idea by Elvis Costello)
U.S. Chart  #30 U.K. Chart  #6
Tracks
  1. Beyond Belief
  2. Tears Before Bedtime
  3. Shabby Doll
  4. The Long Honeymoon
  5. Man Out of Time
  6. Almost Blue
  7. …And In Every Home
  8. The Loved Ones
  9. Human Hands
  10. Kid About It
  11. Little Savage
  12. Boy With A Problem
  13. Pidgin English
  14. You Little Fool
  15. Town Cryer

This wasn’t just pop like 1982 radio. It was an honest, loving tribute to — and reinvention of — pop music traditions from Tin Pan Alley to the Great American Songbook, from the Brill Building and Bacharach to Lennon and McCartney. With his usual casual arrogance, deep feeling, and literate observations, Costello crafted a set of 15 songs that are at once diverse and cohesive.

Things kick off with Beyond Belief, a torrent of words that creates a single snapshot. Breathlessly narrating a casual encounter in a bar, he infuses it with emotion and potential, breaking off the narration just before it all comes together. It’s a smart, energetic, almost brutal beginning, two-and-a-half minutes of the finest of Costello. Tears Before Bedtime is a bit of vintage pop, a cinematic moment that captures the kitchen sink drama mood with a bit of carnival flair. Shabby Doll, inspired by a cabaret poster, dissects sexual politics with epic wit and a Gershwinesque melody. The aching Long Honeymoon closes the first section with another nicely narrated relationship snapshot and a warmly emotive vocal.

The opening and closing moments of Man Out of Time recall early Costello with a crazed guitar and angry howl. Fading in and out of these moments is a stately march of a song lamenting a figure who has lost his place. The juxtaposition is wonderful and the effect is both jarring and resonant. While Almost Blue shares a title with Costello’s previous album of country covers, the song itself is a smart jazzy piece that recalls the best of Cole Porter. The lament of a man worn thin by life, it’s become a standard and one of Costello’s most covered songs.

The next trio fit nicely together. …And In Every Home has a bright, Beatlesque horn section under a story of illusory domesticity. The Loved Ones features a joyous piano figure with a martial drum as Costello sings of the challenges of romance. Human Hands is the most New Wave of the cuts, a quick plea for compassion. The three create a clever, cohesive emotional set.

The slower Kid About It features a minimalist keyboard setting and a higher register vocal. These elements underscore the open emotions of the song, making it one a more straightforward but no less effective moment in Costello’s journey. Little Savage uses layered vocals and simple, driving pop to explore the dichotomies of human nature in a smart pop snapshot. In Boy With A Problem — written with Squeeze’s Chris Difford — things get more elliptical but no less emphatic. It’s a resigned number with just a hint of hope.

Pidgin English is another standout in the whole Costello catalog. It’s a surging mini-epic in a swirling post-psychedelic setting that ponders the power of words. Given the singer’s longstanding reputation for wordplay, it’s both self-referential and revelatory, a delightful song that boils down to its coda: “P.S. I Love You.” A modern pop gem, You Little Fool takes all the elements of the pop encyclopedia that precede it and crafts a little Costello masterpiece, a biting little story with soaring production.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous Town Cryer. Building from a simple but lovely pop song to a lush production, it’s a smart bit of big band jazz blended with 80s pop. Costello turns in an especially fine vocal managing to create a bit of aching self-pity without becoming maudlin. Bonus points for creating the phrase “tragically hip” a phrase that somehow feels perfectly at home on this album.

Complicated but earnest, smart without being smug (something Costello doesn’t always balance), comprehensive but not overwhelming, Imperial Bedroom is a wonderful musical statement. With and without the Attractions, Costello continues to churn out wonderful music thirty years later. Given the many gems in that catalog, it’s a testament to Imperial Bedroom that it remains his single most enduring statement.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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