Counterbalance: Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Imperial Bedroom

History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats. Keep your finger on important issues, and keep listening to the 275th most acclaimed album of all time. A 1982 masterpiece is this week's Counterbalance.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Imperial Bedroom

Mendelsohn: The last couple of times we’ve had to do an Elvis Costello record, I have been nothing but receptive. Normally, I find Costello’s music to be fun and refreshing. This week you’ve handed me Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, and to be honest, I’m not entirely impressed. It’s a good record, mostly well-thought out, excellent production — everything is spot on, but it’s missing the frenetic energy that punctuated Costello’s early releases (There are also a couple other differences I’m sure we will get to in a little bit). But while I was wandering around this album trying to figure out why it wasn’t clicking, I got bored and started looking up old reviews. I don’t normally check the old reviews, simply because most music critics are wankers, and nobody cares what they have to say. But with nothing else going on I decided to do it anyway. For the most part, Imperial Bedroom received glowing reviews. Until I got to Robert Christgau, who called the album pretentious (and that man knows the meaning of the word, believe you me). I could see that, Christgau. I don’t find it exactly pretentious, but it seems like Costello’s need for studio experimentation is going a little against his own grain. Sort of like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

I can’t fault Costello for making this record. It’s a fun listen and there isn’t anything I really can’t stand. It’s not like he could continue to remake My Aim Is True, right? Maybe I just don’t fully understand Costello’s oeuvre or his evolution as an artist that brought him to making this record. Maybe, just maybe, Klinger, you will be able to explain it to me. Who am I kidding? You are definitely going to explain it to me. You might even tell me why this Costello album could rank above all other Costello albums in his lengthy chrestomathy of recorded output. It doesn’t — critical consensus puts Imperial Bedroom as Costello’s third best record and ranks at no. 275 on the Great List and the no. 4 record of 1982 (trailing only Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince) — but I’d like to hear you make the argument.

Klinger: Oh, I’m not going to say that it’s the best album in his entire catalogue, but it is an absolutely essential bit of Costelliana. It seemed controversial right at the moment of its release, thanks in part to a curious Columbia marketing campaign featuring posters that simply said “Masterpiece?” Other reviews compared Costello to George Gershwin, which inspired an 85-year-old Ira Gershwin to dispatch an assistant to the local LP dispensary so he could hear this young upstart for himself. (No word on the results, but I’d be surprised if Ira made it all the way through “Beyond Belief”). Part of the reason for the whole hubbub was most likely the astonishing array of musical styles that Costello and the Attractions were able to muster up. The group shifts effortlessly from psych to soul to tangos without breaking a sweat.

Which, of course, could be confusing if you’re expecting something more closely aligned with his jaggedy early works. Over the course of his career, Costello has made a reputation (for better or worse) of being a musical Zelig, working to compete on every playing field. Here’s where he adds even more colors to his palette, going far beyond his rock with dabs of reggae and country. In later years, he’d collaborate with Burt Bacharach — that makes sense when you hear “The Long Honeymoon”. Allen Toussaint? Listen to “Town Cryer”. The Brodsky Quartet? Costello’s love for stringed instruments shines through on “… And in Every Home”. But most importantly, Imperial Bedroom has that joy of discovery that’s usually reserved for debut albums. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the joy you hear on (dare I say it) Sgt. Pepper. Does that help, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Did you just compare Imperial Bedroom to Sgt. Pepper? And here I thought I was the only one who thought up crazy things and then immortalized them in text. Although maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss such assertions as famed Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick did helm the sessions for Costello. Emerick replaced Costello’s long time producer Nick Lowe, because Costello wanted to play around in the studio and didn’t think Lowe would have the patience to sit through endless hours of experimentation. I don’t think I can blame him.

From what I’ve read about Imperial Bedroom, Costello didn’t go into the studio with any set plan in mind. Over the course of three months he and the Attractions wrote and recorded these songs from scratch, trying out various instrumentation and vocal arrangements for each song. That sort of obsessive attention to detail comes through quite clearly on the record. The set pieces are gorgeous and meticulously arranged. But I think that is the record’s greatest fault. It plays like an album of eccentricities. It seems Costello couldn’t decide which way to go and went in all directions at once. He pulled it off, but at nearly an hour long, Imperial Bedroom feels empirically boring. It is so overwrought that it makes me yearn for the simplicity of Costello’s early works. I just want a two-minute blast of rock-driven pop and I don’t get that on this record. “Man Out of Time” teases the possibilities before slowing down. I don’t perk up until “The Loved Ones”. I don’t even mind Costello on the piano because the Attractions pick up the slack and push the song forward with a sense of purpose. The rest of the album seems to wander, trying on styles as the whim hits. I suppose if I were a Costello obsessive I might find this more entertaining.

Klinger: Hmm, maybe part of the problem (and I hate to sound like a hipster) is that you’re not listening to it on (and again, I’m sorry) vinyl. “The Loved Ones” is the first song on Side 2, so you have to go ahead and flip the record right after the glorious symphonic Living Stereo of “… And in Every Home” fades away. Or maybe take your time and let that first half sink in. All I know is that I’ve been listening to Imperial Bedroom since some time during Reagan’s first term, so I’ve spent enough time with this album that when each song kicks in I immediately snap to renewed attention. I could see where you might not be especially enamored with this album in its digital format, since there are so many songs and it seems to wax and wane at odd paces. Also I spent a ton of time staring at the lyric sheet, which printed every word as one long run-on sentence, with no break between lines or songs. It lent to the air of mystery and challenge to the listening, and in some ways made it even more of an immersive experience.

But you raise an interesting point about the recording process here. The group took their time here, rather than bum-rushing a studio with Nick Lowe to pound out another gang of songs. And while that’s something that obviously worked brilliantly in the past, it was just starting to demonstrate diminishing returns (and I stress “just starting to”. Trust is a hoot, but the country covers album “Almost Blue” is more of a struggle.). So here the group plays more with sonic textures and allows their instrumentation to shine through. Bass player Bruce Thomas sounds especially great here, but Geoff Emerick knew a thing or two about recording bass players.

In addition, there’s an interesting sense of immediacy to Costello’s lyrics — he’s not as obscure or lyrically wall-to-wall as he can sometimes be. His songs are striking in their directness, especially for someone who sometimes favors wordplay over straightforward storytelling. The depiction of the wife in “The Long Honeymoon”, the beleaguered dad in “You Little Fool”, the “Town Cryer”, they’re all laid bare for you, and their humanity shines through. I disagree with Robert Christgau in his assessment. Can Costello be pretentious at times? Yes. Is he here? Good lord, no. Part of the problem may be that these lyrics are wedded to the group’s most ornate arrangements to date, but hey, one man’s pretense is another man’s ambition.