From 1982: I Review Elvis Costello And The Attractions “Imperial Bedroom” for East Village Eye
(In my youth, I was a writer and editor at East Village Eye and I wrote this in 1982. Oddly, since a lot of my opinions have changed in the past -gasp- 35 years, I think I got this one right. It is probably my second favorite Costello album -after Get Happy!! -IL)
|Like any Elvis Costello LP, Imperial Bedroom is closer to a Rorschach Test than a crossword puzzle; its meaning abstract yet definable, multi-layered, and depending as much on what the listener wants to hear. That said, Costello’s overall points of reference are blatant, the pivotal line here is “One of the thousand pities that can’t be categorized.” This is a dissection of the emotional fascism explicit in sexual relationships and more specifically (albeit not solely) in the bonds of marriage, in order to explicate the state of modern society. With the book of rock music utilized as a linear development on pop, Costello builds a foundation from which he condemns, condones, excuses, engages, antagonizes, discusses, disgusts, disengages, disorients, and details the human condition. This is not far from the misanthropic, quasi-misogynist angry young man of his earliest work as it might seem. Costello distances himself from the tribulations he discusses (five of these songs are in the third person), it isn’t sympathy he feels for the victims but an understanding of how and why they get there.
After the (relative) failures of Trust and Almost Blue there’s a sense of relief in being enraptured again in Costello’s dense lyricism and dizzying contempt; the gorgeousness of his melodies, the complexity of his imagination coheres on the fifteen tracks of Imperial Bedroom forming a lengthy miasma that functions first and foremost as a pinnacle of contemporary pop. The relaxed beauty of “Human Hands” and “Tears Before Bedtime” (apologies to his wife, as Dave DiMartino pointed out to me) stings and soothes, the masterful terror of “Man Out Of Time” opens and closes with a howl and the harmonic dischords of overlayed electric guitars, in-between the Zim’s riff to “Positively 4th Street” evolves into an almost symphonic corruption of its basic rock chords, Gershwin piano melodies dissolves into Sgt. Pepper meets the Kinks orchestrations (conducted by Steve Nieve); Blonde On Blonde‘s shiny mercury sound is mixed from a Get Happy! unresolved Motown, the superb vocals are over-dubbed and segued breaking off Costello’s half-finished words as it moves into the chorus, McCartneyish whimsy is brought to life and made viable, and Geoff Emerick’s production disciplines the disparate musical idioms to the point where everything is sublimated for the sake of sound (even the strings aren’t there to sugar but to open up), and where Costello’s rare ability to write memorable melodies/lyrics/arrangements/desires are given to the public with the deftness his excellent songs deserve.
Costello’s subject matter hasn’t changed much either (he only ever occasionally wrote about specific political situations), on Imperial Bedroom the opening track “Beyond Belief” tackles the basic issue of pop politics today: “Keep your fingers on important issues / with crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues,” but the song doesn’t end there, he streams off an explainable sexual anxiety with throwaway lines like “I could make it California’s fault” echoed ’till it becomes computer terminalized and ending with the horrifying coda (to fade) “I’ve got a feeling, gonna get a lot of grief / Once it seemed so appealing, now I am beyond belief.” With such sleight of hand Costello is left to view the real crises affecting his audience; the relationships based on misery, sexual war play as a close relation to physical war play. And — unlike the labyrinth without an exit of This Year’s Model — he offers uneasy answers to people’s emotional cruelty, the power of (more than love) TRUST, and the way the broken words can be healed.
So Costello sets himself as impassioned seer of the stacked-deck stories he tells; the time-spanning “The Long Honeymoon” / “Man Out Of Time,” in the former a newly-wed bride waits for her husband who might be having an affair with her best friend (we aren’t told), in the latter the husband — if not the same man, a similar one — is viewed many years later embroiled in a scandal to do with prostitutes, left with his wife and children who might still trust him (we aren’t told). The tragedies never stop: A man pays for an affair on “Tears Before Bedtime,” a man is ever-protective of his daughter pushing her into the arms of somebody who doesn’t care for her on “You Little Fool,” in typical Costello fashion promiscuous woman takes “him” for a ride on “Shabby Doll,” a man yearns for the return of a loved one on “Almost Blue.” But the song that puts everything else into context is “Pidgin English”: in the opening verse a distinctly banal marriage — husband working himself to death at a night job, wife neglected and friendless, and the lack of compassion on either side “All ends up in a slanging match with body talk and bruises” (a thousand miles from his still unreleased “Wave a White Flag” sexual violence as hapless joke). On the second verse the position is changed and love is described from (what I take is) the sexual perversion of a single man. But Costello gives an answer to these peoples desperation: ” I believe, I trust, I promise, I wish love’s just a throwaway kiss.”
This is of course very moral stuff and that is why it works. Even at his angriest there’s been a moral question raised in Costello’s songs, but only with bits and pieces of Get Happy!! and Trust did he manage to view the two (and more) sides; Imperial Bedroom‘s sweeping vision dissolves the lines of love, and if Costello refuses to give into the sentimentality of these issues he still has compassion for human frailty. The final fade is the Beatles’ “P.S. I Love You,” a unity between the simplicity of pop in the midst of current complexities. If there was ever any doubt there is none now: Elvis Costello is the poet laureate of my generation as certainly as Dylan was to my brothers. Pretty words? I mean it.