Elvis Costello Imperial Bedroom

Love and Unhappiness Go Arm in Arm: Elvis Costello’s ‘Imperial Bedroom’ at 40

Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom is a shape-shifting masterpiece of chamber-pop, folk, bursts of punk rage, Beatlesesque earworms, jazz-leaning future standards, and bits of pysch rock.

Imperial Bedroom
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
F-Beat / Columbia
2 July 1982

There’s an odd moment near the end of “Pidgin English”, the 13th of 15 songs on Elvis Costello‘s 1982 album Imperial Bedroom. Right after Costello passionately sings, “One of a thousand pities that you can’t categorize / There are ten commandments of love / When will you realize,” the music drops considerably. Keyboard player Steve Nieve’s organ is dialed down to a low simmer, drummer Pete Thomas’ bass drum provides a simple pulse, and bassist Bruce Thomas plays a few small melodic notes. The pause in the action lasts a beat too long before Costello comes back and sings “P.S. I love you” three times as the band builds up and crashes into a swirling, majestic, vaguely psychedelic coda. It’s as if, after the 40 minutes of Byzantine musical intricacies and knotty wordplay that preceded that moment, Costello and his band, the Attractions, needed to take a breather. It’s the album equivalent of a seventh-inning stretch.

Who could blame them? Costello’s seventh album (his sixth with the Attractions) is a shape-shifting masterpiece, comprising chamber-pop, folk, bursts of punk rage, Beatlesesque earworms, jazz-leaning future standards, and bits of pysch rock. At the time of Imperial Bedroom’s release, shifts and experiments with musical styles were nothing new for the then 27-year-old Costello. While his first three albums – My Aim Is True, This Years Model, and Armed Forces – were sterling examples of how to fuse witty wordplay with tuneful new wave, 1980’s Get Happy!! saw Costello pay an inspired tribute to the Stax-Volt soul music he adored.

Additionally, Trust (1981) was a manic-yet-catchy collection of 14 songs no doubt aided by recreational drug use. Almost Blue – released later that year – was a head-scratching but impeccably executed country-western covers album. Costello had pulled off the neat trick of showing off his influences without stretching himself too thin.

After those first six albums, Imperial Bedroom seemed to take a more measured approach. While Nick Lowe produced the first five albums and Nashville pro Billy Sherrill was at the boards for Almost Blue, Costello recruited former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to produce his next album. Costello wrote in the liner notes of the 1994 Imperial Bedroom reissue, “I wanted to try a few things in the studio that I suspected would quickly exhaust Nick’s patience.” For all his skill and accolades as a producer, Lowe didn’t earn the term “Basher” for nothing (“Bash it out – we’ll tart it up later” were Lowe’s alleged instructions to the artists he produced).

Beatles producer George Martin is nowhere to be found on Imperial Bedroom, although it was recorded at his AIR Studios in London, and his influence is evident to anyone with ears and a familiarity with the Fab Four’s late-period works. The album – “produced by Geoff Emerick from an original idea by Elvis Costello”, the liner notes cryptically explain – uses a wide variety of sonic embellishments that complement and lift the songs rather than busily distract from them.

The breakneck psychedelia of “Beyond Belief”, which opens the album, implements compression, a small explosion or two, carnival-like keyboard runs, and a masterful performance from Costello. His vocals go from a subtle murmur at first (“History repeats the old conceits / The glib replies, the same defeats”) to an effects-laden holler during the bridge (“I might make it California’s fault / Be locked in Geneva’s deepest vault / Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef / I come to you beyond belief”). Thomas’ manic drumming – recorded in one take under a crippling hangover, according to Costello – propels the song into an experimental, vaguely sci-fi fever dream.

Fans expecting more of what was offered up on previous albums wouldn’t necessarily be disappointed in this more creative, occasionally haunting approach. It’s obvious that Costello and the Attractions were the same band but used the studio more deliberately and thoughtfully. Marital discord – a familiar lyrical subject matter for Costello – forms the basis of the bright, otherwise upbeat “Tears Before Bedtime”, as well as the jazzy ballad “Almost Blue” and the Latin-tinged “The Long Honeymoon”.

The latter track, a curious cousin to “Different Finger” (from Trust), gives a bit of a cabaret flavor to the familiar tale of infidelity. “There’s a wife who’s wondering where her husband could be tonight,” Costello croons, “And when the phone rang only once / She took a dreadful fright.” Nieve, ever the Attractions’ playful musical prodigy, plays accordion on the song. Although, as Costello humorously recalls in the reissue liner notes, “it took three of us to execute this part. Laying the instrument on the table, Steve played the keyboard while one of us worked the bellow, and a third party held the beast in place.” Photographic evidence of this comic endeavor, unfortunately, has yet to surface. A trio of French horns, arranged by Nieve, concludes the song in a bit of frightening atonalism that underscores the broad palette Costello was working with.

While Emerick’s work in the studio is crucial to the album’s sound, Nieve was, and some say still is, Costello’s secret weapon. Besides his skill at the keyboard, the one-time student at the Royal College of Music contributed some if not all of Imperial Bedroom’s orchestral concepts. The most obvious example is “…And in Every Home”, which manages to mash together the baroque inclinations of the Beatles, Brian Wilson, and a little Scott Walker for good measure. According to Costello, in a 1983 Musician magazine interview, his instructions to Nieve were “give full vent to your imagination”. He added that this simple direction “gave (the song) this deranged setting”. The song almost sounds like what a young music college student would do if you gave him a major label budget, an orchestra, and a former Beatles producer’s studio, which is exactly what happened.

Some of the album’s sophistication shows the snarl of punk ready to burst out at the seams, never more apparent than in one of the album’s best songs (and one of Costello’s best tracks ever), “Man Out of Time”. The majestic mid-tempo song, full of Costello’s usual hyper-literate lyrics and a deeply sophisticated, layered approach, is bookended by brief, manic, guitar-heavy sections that were excised from an earlier, much different arrangement. Costello has explained that the song was an attempt for him to avoid writing a self-regarding song by wrapping it in the disguise of a political scandal. The tune’s last line, “Love is always scarpering or cowering, or fawning / You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning”, might be one of the most on-brand lyrics Costello has ever dreamt up. Like fellow British songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, Costello finds poetry and eloquence in heartbreak and drunken buffoonery.

Difford, incidentally, makes an appearance on Imperial Bedroom, penning the lyrics to the fractured art-pop of “Boy with a Problem”, one of several songs that casts a downcast, cynical eye on the world (even though Costello insists this is perhaps his most optimistic album). It could have turned out much differently, as Costello sent the song’s music to legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn in an attempt to foster collaboration, but Cahn politely declined. As great as such a songwriting team could have been, Difford’s words are typically eloquent: “I feel like a boy with a problem / I can’t believe what we’ve forgotten / Sleeping with forgiveness in your heart for me.”

Elsewhere, Costello’s love of classic soul makes odd, inverted appearances. There’s nothing as directly reverential to the genre as anything on Get Happy!!, but “Little Savage” packs an oddly minor-key punch, as if it’s some alternate-universe R&B single. The waltz-tempo ballad “Kid About It” has Costello zigzagging between croons and shouts that would make Sam Cooke beam. Due mainly to Nieve’s musical genius, the closing track “Town Cryer” could’ve been a freak hit in the hands of Smokey Robinson or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Nieve’s deeply felt grand piano introduction and the gorgeous strings and horns that weave their way through the song give the entire track a warm, “Philly Soul on the Thames” vibe.

Not surprisingly, Imperial Bedroom was greeted with rave reviews, the best of Costello’s career up to that point. While the albums that immediately followed suffered from Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley’s dated production techniques – 1983’s Punch the Clock was pleasant and tolerable, while 1984’s synth-addled Goodbye Cruel World is frequently considered his worst ever – Costello has continued to explore a variety of musical paths, be it roots-rock (King of America), kitchen-sink production (Spike, Mighty Like a Rose), Bacharach collaborations (Painted from Memory), string quartet song cycles (The Juliet Letters) or even the odd ballet (Il Sogno). Like the Picasso-themed cover art for Imperial Bedroom – courtesy of the late pop artist Barney Bubbles – Costello remains bright, complex, artful, and never dull.  

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