Aural Fixation: Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom”

Regardless of how you feel about Imperial Bedroom, there’s no denying that the album was a major turning point for Elvis Costello. Sure, Elvis had already gone R&B with Get Happy!!, pop with Trust and country with Almost Blue, but Imperial Bedroom contains an all-around eclectic and intricate sound that is difficult to describe. Imperial Bedroom was produced by Beatles sound whiz Geoff Emerick, making the album Costello’s first record of original material not produced by buddy Nick Lowe (Almost Blue, produced by Billy Sherrill, contained all covers). The Beatles’ influence on Imperial Bedroom is implicit, although the album’s inspiration is equally from Tin Pan Alley as from the Fab Four. While the album was not received very positively upon its release, it stands up as Costello’s last venture outside the box before resigning to a listener-friendly sound for the next decade or so.

Not only is Imperial Bedroom my favorite Elvis Costello album, but its opening track, “Beyond Belief,” is my favorite Costello song. The churning number is caught somewhere between somber and upbeat, a dichotomy that is Imperial Bedroom‘s unofficial theme. “Beyond Belief” is one of Costello’s wordiest songs, and that’s really saying something. His vocal delivery bounces and whips around a range that he hadn’t previously shown on record. Other standouts include Trust holdover “Man Out Of Time,” the unlikely love song “Human Hands” and Elvis’ attempt at a jazz classic, “Almost Blue.” That song has indeed become a modern standard, and Chet Baker‘s cover is particularly beautiful.

Imperial Bedroom features, in my opinion, some Costello’s best-written work. The menacing “Shabby Doll,” the playful “Tears Before Bedtime,” they aren’t just musically complex but lyrically elaborate and engaging. Being the scatterbrain he is, Costello wasn’t be able to stick with this proto-baroque pop for very long. Instead, he went for the totally vanilla route that can be heard on Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, two of my least favorite Costello albums. You can hear some twinges of the more blue-eyed soul style towards the end of Imperial Bedroom (and in some of the later-released outtakes), but the experimental pop found on the rest of the album makes up for those infrequent shortcomings. It might have been one of Costello’s least-successful albums (none of its singles charted in the UK or US), but Imperial Bedroom is undoubtedly one of his best.

Listen: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “Beyond Belief” from Imperial Bedroom (1982)

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~ by E. on March 10, 2010.

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