Treble 100: No. 70, Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Imperial Bedroom

Elvis Costello Imperial Bedroom Treble 100

One of the working titles for Elvis Costello’s seventh studio album was P.S. I Love You. It’s the name of an early Beatles song, and a line that’s deployed twice on the album eventually titled Imperial Bedroom. That the proposed title was even considered suggested a revised  perception of Costello’s career to that point.

Large parts of Costello’s outstanding first five albums, from My Aim Is True to Trust, were fueled by ire against social imbalance and romantic injustice. They were products of Swinging London after it was overrun by hostile forces (i.e., punk). Costello caught that chaos, the sexual politics and constant flux of young adulthood. Producer Nick Lowe gave Costello and the Attractions a basic, urgent framework to get that point across.

Close listeners may have caught signals that change was imminent. Costello’s 1981 album Trust had songs that disrupted the Attractions’ style, venturing into country and cabaret at points. The next album, Almost Blue, was straight-up country. But Imperial Bedroom represents the most profound artistic leap of his career. It’s not just the abundant musical arrangements the record boasts—it’s the shift in emotional venue. Let us never speak the words “angry young man” again.

For leaps like this, if you can’t get a Beatle, at least get the Beatle-adjacent. Imperial Bedroom was made in George Martin’s AIR Studios in London, produced by longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick rather than Nick Lowe. “I knew that I wanted to try a few things in the studio that I suspected would quickly exhaust Nick’s patience,” Costello wrote for the album’s 1994 reissue.

Emerick’s paint board was broad enough to accommodate Costello’s new musical ideas, especially some out-there arrangements from keyboardist Steve Nieve. Temporarily gone was the Attractions’ insistence from This Year’s Model and Get Happy!! In its place were Nieve’s Byzantine orchestrations for “…And In Every Home,” the mourning accordion and French horns in “The Long Honeymoon,” the swinging waltz of “Kid About It,” and the regal British brass on “Pidgin English.”

Slier but no less pertinent was Costello’s modified perspective. “Given most of the lyrical content,” he wrote, “you might be surprised to hear that I had imagined this to be my most optimistic album to date.” Indeed, it’s hard to feel negative while in the brightness of “…And In Every Home” and “The Loved Ones.” Costello’s pen remained critical, but the criticism was more constructive.

A few spins of Imperial Bedroom revealed a new form of empathy, complexity, and yes, a couple more “I love you’s.” This may be the result of Costello’s acknowledgement that many of his most censuring lyrics were self-directed, which could have tempered his portraits. Although Imperial Bedroom isn’t a head-on rush of bliss, even the saddest of the album’s protagonists aren’t guaranteed to fail and may even have a way out.

The first track drops hints about Costello’s break. “Beyond Belief” rakes the agitated bachelor of “Hand in Hand” and “High Fidelity” over an open spit, admitting how tawdry the single life can be if you’ve worn out your lapels: “History repeats the old conceits / The glib replies, the same defeats.” Sex as an aggressive act has turned the whole coterie into a Thurber-esque circus, the singer included: “All the laddies cat-call and wolf-whistle / So-called gentlemen and ladies dogfight like rose and thistle.” “Beyond Belief” clears the slate, and again, Pete Thomas’ tightrope drumming forces the issue.

Other vestiges of the past are exorcized or at least happily wounded. “The Loved Ones” deconstructs the cliché of the drug-addled rock god, getting him away from the children and back to rehab. “You’re not my particular poison / I’ve got nothing against you myself / You could have been a danger to the boys and girls / Now you’re a danger to yourself,” Costello sings on top of a Kinks-y lilt. “Shabby Doll” rounds up all the Lotharios and Calistas from Clubland and tracks their downfall — but Costello doesn’t roast them too hard because he counts himself as one too: “Being what you might call a whore / Always worked for me before / Now I’m a shabby doll.” The descending minor-key guitar line and Costello’s disembodied shrieking makes it the album’s scariest song.

The most dramatically unprecedented song on Imperial Bedroom is its gentlest: “Almost Blue,” written for Frank Sinatra, who should have pounced on it but never did. (Now it’s Costello’s most-covered song.) It’s barebones, cocktail torch that’s lyrically economical and calmly devastating: “There’s a girl here and she’s almost you, almost / All the things that your eyes once promised / I see in hers too.” Nieve’s tragic chords are patiently backed by the unrelated Thomases; Bruce and Pete’s admirable restraint heightens the tension.

What matters on Imperial Bedroom is finding a basis for love to actually, you know, work. It’s not easy for the warring couple in “Tears Before Bedtime” or the reforming Alfie in “Little Savage.” It’s nearly catastrophic on “The Long Honeymoon,” one of Costello’s most straightforward lyrics. (He approached Sammy Cahn about collaborating on the song, but was declined.) A forsaken housewife conflates her fears of a cheating husband with good ol’ media-driven paranoia: “All the movies and the papers feature the murders of lonely women / If he isn’t in by ten she’ll call up her best friend,” who suspiciously isn’t answering the phone.

Costello’s ability to go subterranean on the details are what elevated him over other songwriters who just described the sidewalk.

But at the end of the chorus, he reveals “She never thought her love could ever be as strong as this.” That simple line is deceptively jarring, as is Costello’s objective, judgment-free narrative. He had never been, or at least never displayed, this degree of empathy before. That new affinity affects a lot of characters on Imperial Bedroom, like the pleader in “Human Hands” (“You know I love you more than slightly / Although I’ve never said it like this before”) and the gallery in “The Loved Ones.” That song, like “Pidgin English,” closes with the reference to “P.S. I Love You”—once is an anomaly, twice is a trend.

“The songs on Imperial Bedroom were about the same lies and deceits as found in the songs of Trust,” Costello wrote in his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, “only now they were being perpetrated behind gilded doors or during the murky excursions of nighttime.” True enough, many of the songs on Imperial Bedroom echo behaviors and fissures that might be received warily in the context of prestige in the shadows.

“…And In Every Home” describes a housewife who’s having a regression of sorts as her husband sits in prison. “She’s only thirty-five going on seventeen,” and she navigates her predicament in a situation that only passively resembles freedom: “You turn to the sinister when you get the boot / Sliding down the banister in your Sunday suit.” Steve Nieve had free rein to make a devotedly non-repetitive string-and-brass arrangement that suggests the BBC Orchestra on ketamine.

The parents of the girl in “You Little Fool” haven’t raised her so much as they’ve subjected her to arbitrary restrictions. That leads to a May-December fling with an older man, which gets the whole village tittering when the union produces a child. It’ll be fine just as long as everyone keeps up the repression: “They say no news is good news / The little girl wants information / Mummy just gives her some pills to choose / And says go and use your imagination.”

“Boy With a Problem” and “Town Cryer” also use privileged surroundings as a backdrop. “Boy,” co-written with Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford, has the singer going into the darkness to find what’s missing in his crumbling marriage: “I crept out last night behind your back / The little they know might be the piece I lack.” But he’s ultimately forgiven, unlike the Town Cryer. The whole, presumably more well-adjusted village knows the guy’s sad-sack schtick so well that he’s resigned to it. But he does get to shake his fist at his silent tormentors: “I’m never going to cry again / I’m going to be as strong as them / They say they’d die for love and then they live it out / They’ll give you something to cry about.”

Then there’s “Man Out of Time,” my favorite Elvis Costello song. (I realize we’re not supposed to have a single favorite song by prolific musicians we admire; we’re supposed to say “Who can decide between all those great tunes?!” Well, I can. It’s close, but I can.) It serves as Imperial Bedroom’s centerpiece appropriately—all the characters on the record could live near where this song takes place, both physically and psychically.

Spurred by Costello’s unsavory introspection as he stared at himself in a tour bus window, “Man Out of Time” reframes his self-accounting as one of the political sex scandals Britain was really good at in years past. Costello was staying in a Scottish hotel that played a role in one of those scandals; the figure at the heart of it apparently escaped the leering eyes of the press there: “So this is where he came to hide / When he ran from you / In a private detective overcoat / And dirty dead man’s shoes.”

More details pour out. They’ve linked him to high-priced escorts in the posh Knightsbridge district, his family is exhausted by the coverage (“Real life becomes a rumor”), and the whole mess has permanently imperiled his domestic existence. The final comeuppance: “You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning.”

“Man Out of Time” settles everything that’s great about Costello’s songwriting. Disguising one’s self-doubts as a third-person morality tale wasn’t new, but nobody had done it better. The weaving of the guilt, fear, and judgment between the two narratives is so thorough that even the abstract lines convey something true; the busted pol and Costello’s own troubled self-regard form one full-fledged portrait—Raskolnikov in furs, or Gregor Sansa in tweed. (He pulls the trick off again in “Kid About It,” using a fractured relationship to explain his feelings in the eerie aftermath of John Lennon’s murder. One of Costello’s most heartbreaking lines is in that song: “So what if this is a man’s world / I want to be a kid again about it.”)

But Costello’s empathy doesn’t allow for total divestiture: “Will you still love a man out of time?” Whether he means a man who has no more time left, a man who’s antiquated, or—like my wife Kate suggested—a man who’s “unstuck in time” in the Vonnegut sense, redemption isn’t out of the picture. It’s just highly questionable. Costello’s ability to go subterranean on the details are what elevated him over other songwriters who just described the sidewalk.

Despite its unified sound, the Attractions never had a better showcase for their individual talents than Imperial Bedroom. Nieve’s piano is exceptionally lyrical, especially in “The Long Honeymoon,” “Almost Blue,” and “Kid About It.” Bruce Thomas pulled off some brilliantly conceived runs on bass, particularly in the codas of “Shabby Doll” and “Human Hands.” And Pete Thomas’s rambling, single, allegedly drunken take on “Beyond Belief” rivals “Lipstick Vogue” as the drummer’s career highlight.

Whether or not one considers Imperial Bedroom Costello’s masterpiece—or, as Columbia’s marketing department weirdly promoted, “Masterpiece?”—it was the switching point for the rest of his career. Like Neil Young and XTC, Costello has since tried not to make the same album twice. He’s probably the most well-read fan of popular music that ever made music. His resources were so deep that, even when he consciously switched up styles, he sounded like he belonged in them.

Imperial Bedroom, with its dramatic pace and internal gaze, is the most logical turning point in Costello’s trajectory. It sounded different enough from all his earlier work that it’s tempting to call it his catalyst. It introduced a wholly new vocabulary (pidgin, if you like) to his music and instantly tripled his range of possibilities. Suddenly, the man out of time got at least a few years back.

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