Monday, December 8, 2014

Imperial Bedroom

U2 and the Police were yet to come, Blondie was still at CBGBs and for most (Americans, anyway), the Jam, the Clash and, particularly, the Sex Pistols were a bitter pill to swallow (thanks Paul Weller).  For one brief, shining moment in the mid-70s, Elvis Costello was one of, well, two commercially successful artists in a stripped down, old school sensibility just starting to brew in the UK.  Indeed, I know where I was when My Aim is True came out; it was that big and burly and exciting.  I was 18 and tooling around London and the handbills were plastered on every kiosk and signpost.  EC combined clever, catchy songwriting with angst-ridden, moaning vocals and a deceptively harmless 50s-retro image that everyone gobbled up (and you had to sing like him – "Al-i-sa,un, I know this world is kill-ing you-oo").  There were just two albums spinning on my turntable that summer, My Aim is True and Look Sharp.

Of course it only got better with This Year’s Model and EC packed it in, pulled out all the stops, for Armed Forces, Get Happy and Trust.  So it was with disregard and a lack of pulchritude that we passed over Almost Blue, even anger, like the messiah sold out to Sun Records.  Country, seriously, we were all so pissed.

Then came Imperial Bedroom.  When the album hit the shelves critics fell all over themselves.  There was Beatle-talk and Pet Sounds intrigue.  Geoff Emerick’s (Beatle-esque) touches made for a handsome, rich sound, more than any other album in EC's discography and the expansiveness paid off right from the album's opener, "Beyond Belief." Working from the pretext that they (EC, the Attractions and Emerick) could experiment like the Beatles did, the album's first side became a song suite of  "Pepper" proportions, with the standout "Man Out Of Time" marking the perfect bridge between the Elvis of old and of new. Comparisons to Gershwin and Porter were being tossed around, ridiculously, when Imperial Bedroom appeared, but one suspects these had more to do with overzealous critics trying to make "serious music" associations than to the merits of Elvis' songwriting prowess; the debt to Tin Pan Alley ("The Long Honeymoon") is there, but the lyrical jabs and jibes are pure Costello. I'd be hard pressed to imagine Cole Porter working up the anger behind "Shabby Doll."

What is perhaps most interesting about Imperial Bedroom is that the characteristics which make it accessible and enticing are the same that make it challenging, at times exasperating, for the listener. This a beautiful, challenging album.  It is an AM8