Monday, June 9, 2008

Elvis Costello 8: Imperial Bedroom

Magazine ads for this album suggested it would be considered a masterpiece. While most wouldn’t fall for such hubris, one thing that permeates throughout Imperial Bedroom is elegance, from the pompous title to the production assistance from onetime Beatle engineer Geoff Emerick.
Starting with the unstoppable locomotive that drives “Beyond Belief” (courtesy of drummer Pete Thomas, in an amazing performance), there is an amazing breadth of material here. “Tears Before Bedtime” is a Nashville leftover given a jokey arrangement, while “Shabby Doll” is another song accusing someone of something horrible. “The Long Honeymoon” is one of many portraits of a damaged marriage, and its unsettling delivery is kicked aside by the cacophony that opens “Man Out Of Time”, which smoothes out into a tour de force of a performance before closing on the same cacophony. “Almost Blue” is a heartbreaking torch song written for Chet Baker, deflated by the mocking Masterpiece Theater soap opera of “…And In Every Home”.
The second side is dominated by more straight rock, but still retains that elegance. “The Loved Ones” and “Human Hands” remain great singalongs to this day, despite their murky subject matter. “Kid About It” slows things down nicely, picked up by “Little Savage”. “Boy With A Problem” sets up an interlude before the one-two-three punch of the closing tracks. “Pidgin English” laments the loss of language, while “You Little Fool” shakes its head at teenage romance through backwards harpsichords. The grand finale is “Town Cryer”, which benefits from the album’s most sympathetic arrangement (courtesy of keyboardist Steve Nieve), complete with strings that carry the album into the sunset for the closing credits.
The album was designed to be experienced as a whole; it even included lyrics for the first time on an Elvis album, printed telegram-style with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Over the years Imperial Bedroom has gotten the occasional slag as pompous or overindulgent, but such opinions ignore the excellence and elegance (there’s that word again) of the songs. Bizarrely, some of the more challenging tracks were chosen as singles, which didn’t fare well on the pop charts.
Being such a strong unified album, it was inevitable that the bonus tracks, added on the 1994 reissue, would detract from the listening experience. It also didn’t help that some of the better B-sides from the period were not included. This would be rectified somewhat with the 2002 Rhino version, which put all the bonus tracks (including most, but not all, of the Ryko bonuses) on a second disc that gives a nice peek into the works-in-progress. Some of these alternates are fascinating (the “Barry White” version of “Town Cryer” is a scream), others show that he was right to redo them, and the demos demonstrate how much he already had in place before bringing the band in.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Imperial Bedroom (1982)—5
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1982, plus 9 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1982, plus 23 extra tracks


  1. you'd love the new radio station out here in la-la land.
    not only do i get to listen to no hiding place off the new elvis album, but i also get jason mraz's new songs, steve winwood's new tracks, and almost the whole mudcrutch album
    (this just in, tom petty is not getting better as a song writer)

    why do i bring this up?

    i wonder where you stand on steve winwood. i mean, he has an undeniably talent, but he also sold michelob.
    how does the author of everybody's dummy feel about this?

    (i listen to hey hey what can i do as i ask. ah, led zeppelin. 3/4 of a great band. i wish they had either better song writing capabilities or a lead singer who didn't sound the same on every damn song.)

  2. Steve Winwood has a classic voice and undeniable talent on his instruments. Unfortunately, he wasted those talents on pop for the better part of fifteen years. That said, you can look forward to an Everybody's Dummy series on Traffic, with a detour into Blind Faith.

    As for Robert Plant, you make a good point. However, since that voice -- and what a voice, one that launched Heart, along with too many hair metal bands -- was his instrument, he had to sound the same most of the time (not all of the time). One thing that's impressed me about him of late is not only that he's been exploring music other than that which put him on the map, but aging has forced him to explore his lower register, which has led to some very interesting recordings. You can also expect to see an Everybody's Dummy series on not only Led Zeppelin, but various notable post-LZ releases in turn.

  3. "...but he also sold michelob."

    Just to play Devil's Advocate, Frank Sinatra also sold Michelob, but I doubt many people would hold him, his music or his legacy in lesser esteem because of that fact.

    Not that Winwood is/was on the same plane as Sinatra, but I'm just sayin'...


  4. Winwood had already started to bug me by the time he sold Michelob, so I see no foul there. But I think that was the same year Clapton sold Michelob, before he'd finished rehab.

    Lots of people sold out, both on the way up and after they'd been established. That's one reason why I'm dreading the upcoming Who/Pete Townshend series right here on Everybody's Dummy.

  5. I agree about Robert Plant. Never got him. Liked the rest of the band. Wish they did more instrumental songs. I'd have enjoyed them more.

    As for the Winwood/Sinatra/Michelob debate, I have but one thing to add.

    I like Michelob.