Picking an Elvis Costello album is not an easy task. From 1977 to 1982, Costello was on such a creative roll that he released seven studio albums! That in itself is amazing, especially when compared to the typical time taken to make a record in the present day. The record review website, Allmusic gives all bar Almost Blue, one of (!) Costello’s albums from 1981, (an album that consists mainly of cover versions) five stars! Prolific he most certainly was. Rob Pollard he most certainly was not! With Guided by Voices there is always a feeling that they stumbled across their classic albums as if by chance. You know, throw enough stuff out there and, by the law of averages, you’ll eventually produce a classic or two. So whilst Guided by Voices hit a rich vein of form from Bee Thousand through to Under the Bushes, one always senses this had more to do with luck than judgement. Certainly there’s much chaff amongst the wheat of their discography. In contrast, Costello’s biggest problem is an embarrassment of riches – he was producing classic albums at such a rate that it all seemed too easy and somewhat overwhelming. All six classics from his initial run have their own identity, all six are packed with great songs but none stand out as THE classic. I suppose received wisdom is that This Year’s Model is his absolute peak – it’s raw and angry and full of energy and vitality. But for me it’s no better than Armed Forces (the melodies on Armed Forces are sweeter, the hooks stronger) or the GBVish Get Happy, crammed with little jewels that seem tossed off but reveal themselves as perfect and perfectly concise pop songs over repeated listens, or possibly his most underrated album, Trust, in which the fires of ire still burned bright but the music and song-writing was starting to show signs of the sophistication that would come into full effect on Imperial Bedroom.
In the end it came to a ‘coin toss’ between Trust and Imperial Bedroom and, whilst I imagine Rob would have preferred the angrier and more direct former choice, my daughter Tess informed me that Imperial Bedroom was the better album and there is no way I would ever argue with her. So that’s what I took.
When it was released in 1982, Imperial Bedroom was set up to fail. Rumour has it that Costello was somewhat piqued when Columbia marketed the album as his ‘Masterpiece?’ on first release. I’m not sure that it is a masterpiece. Then again, I’m not sure any of Costello’s albums are. For me Costello’s output has always been marred by its unevenness. The highs Costello hits are so, so high that they cast long shadows over the lesser tracks on all his albums. Here are a few examples:
My Aim Is True – compare Alison with Sneaky Feelings.
This Year’s Model – Lipstick Vogue vs Night Rally
Armed Forces – Party Girl vs Sunday’s Best
Get Happy – King Horse vs Black and White World
Trust – Watch Your Step vs Different Finger
Punch The Clock – Shipbuilding vs The Invisible Man
They’re all fine songs of course, but I would argue that the first songs suggested are all top of the Premiership the others are simply in another league (you can choose which one).
And in this respect, Imperial Bedroom is no exception. So, whilst it kicks off with what could well be his best song period in Beyond Belief (so amazing it is that I just had to add the hyperlink) and also has Costello top ten material in Man Out of Time and You Little Fool, some of the other (perfectly fine) songs on the album (..And In Every Home, Human Hands, Boy With a Problem) sag somewhat in comparison. But the great thing about Imperial Bedroom for me is that whilst it peaks and troughs it all sounds so good, is so beautifully arranged, played and sung (even though, as Nick pointed out, Costello has a ‘bloody weird voice’) that you can sit back, relax and let the album wash over you in a way that so few records in my collection, or indeed in Costello’s catalogue, do.
Nick listened: Tom’s back into the swing of things now – bringing records I bought years ago (when there were still record shops in places like Exeter) that I’d seen cheap and thought “yeah, I ought to have that”. About three early Costello records were bought together – this, Armed Forces, and Blood and Chocolate – after I’d picked up (and thoroughly enjoyed, as I recall) When I Was Cruel back when it came out in 2002. I’d had a Best of Elvis Costello and The Attractions compilation (I dunno where it is now but we’ve just reshelved the CDs and it’s not here anymore) so knew a handful of songs, but I just never managed to get around to listening to the three early albums proper. Who knows why? I should make a list of all the unplayed CDs on the shelves. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are… pointless.
Anyway, I enjoyed this, and I played it again (my own copy!) over the weekend. I suspect, as with a lot of ‘songwriters’, that the songs will take many more listens to unfurl them properly (especially when there’s so many – 15 tracks on Imperial Bedroom). Christgau, who I’m not a fan of particularly, claims that the peaks of Imperial Bedroom are “as great as songwriting gets”, but also accuses Costello of being “precious”, “gnomic”, and “pretentious”. I’ve always got the feeling from Costello that he’s very much about craft, about artisanship, about deliberation, that he’s a scholarly songwriter, a wordsmith and a tunesmith. There’s nothing wrong with this at all – far from it – and I don’t imagine many songwriters just channel stuff from the ether, despite what the mythology of rock suggests, but with Costello this studiousness almost seems to count against him for some reason: like he can’t be perceived as ‘authentic’ (which is a massively loaded and problematic term I keep meaning to do battle with on my blog) because he’s too clever. Anyway, I was delighted Tom played this, and I look forward to getting to know it better.
Graham listened: I’m glad Tom brought this along as with the sole exception of ‘Blood and Chocolate’, I have never listened to an entire Elvis Costello album. I never appreciated his craftsmanship and talents in the early days and now I look at the size of his back catalogue, its almost too daunting to know where to begin. There were too many great songs to fully take on board in one sitting which led me to ponder why I would have ignored him as an artist at the time. Guess I and many of the record buying public just weren’t ready to appreciate such quality in 1982! Maybe, like bottles of good Burgundy, I should have bought more of his albums at the time, then laid them down for when I had a better educated (musical) palette.
Rob listened: I’m sorry to say that this passed me by, in the mid-eighties when I was aware of Costello but never really investigated beyond the chart hits, in the last few years when i’ve finally got around to buying and loving some of his early albums, and on the night when, for whatever reason, it just slipped around my ears and into the night. I got the sound of sophistication, perhaps Costello’s music catching up with his lyrical dexterity, but not much more. I’m sure this is an album that could become a favourite companion given time, as compared to ‘This Year’s Model’ which had me hooked half way through my first listen. Shallow, I know, but what can I do?