I’m off work this week and have been spending some time on my music book, now on a chapter about what Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen did from the the early eighties onwards. After both made a sequence of five amazing albums, ending with “Trust” by Elvis and “The River” by Bruce, which I cover in earlier chapters.
Today I ran through three fine albums by Elvis Costello. It was great fun just listening to them again, with intent. “Imperial Bedroom” stands out as possibly Elvis’s most ambitious album ever. His attempt at making the ultimate pop album. This is what I wrote today – a first draft, subject to change, but probably not far off what I’ll end up saying.
Here are two tracks to listen to. “Beyond Belief” and “Almost Blue” (not to be confused with the previous album of the same name!).
I’d just ended my piece on the wonderful “Almost Blue”, Elvis’s country album, which was…
Quite a contrast to the next album, “Imperial Bedroom” in 1982, which was Elvis’s most adventurous album sonically, maybe ever. Some people, including my good friend Steve, who is pretty obsessive about Elvis, think it’s his best album, and I can understand why. I wouldn’t go quite that far myself, but it is an album that bears repeated listening, because there is so much going on. It was produced by Geoff Emerick, who had history with The Beatles. Perhaps Elvis was trying to make his “Revolver” or “Sgt Pepper”. Or paint his musical Picasso? The album cover was a pastiche of twenties/thirties Picasso by the artist Barney Bubbles – and credited to “Sal Forlenza 1942”. Always one for a joke, Elvis. Wasn’t a bad take on Picasso though. Like many of the works of the great man himself, the painting was both primitive but complex, colourful and beyond ordinary vision. Beyond belief? It was an album where key board wizard Steve Nieve was let loose too. His trademark strokes are everywhere. Trills and thrills. In the sleevenotes to the double CD reissue in 2002, Elvis writes about how he had started composing most of his songs on the piano, which invited a more “arranged” approach to them. It gave Steve Nieve a different kind of canvas to improvise over, too.
At first, some of the slower, darker songs appealed to me most. Songs like “Shabby Doll” and “Kid About It” (written the day after the murder of John Lennon) and “Almost Blue”. The latter wasn’t a leftover from the previous album, although it was one of the more straightforward songs on “Imperial Bedroom”. The subject matter could have been from the album of the same name, but the sound was from the smoky jazz bar rather than the Nashville jukebox. It was the first true sign that Elvis could turn out to be a pretty powerful singer of torch songs. Songs from the dark shadows, full of lush regret. I looked forward to the day when he chanced his arm. It did come, much later, and I realised that actually, I preferred a bit of torch mixed up with the pop Elvis, rather than too much of the real thing!
Elvis has said in the past that he took inspiration from the songwriting of Abba: those big build ups and choruses on tunes like “Knowing Me Knowing You”. There was plenty of that on “Imperial Bedroom”: songs like “Man Out Of Time” and “Pidgin English”, though the latter had a hint of an old favourite from “Armed Forces”, “Green Shirt” too. “Imperial Bedroom” was, in a way, a return to the musical direction of “Armed Forces” but with many more layers of sound and experimentation. It was Elvis’s attempt to make the ultimate pop album; but being Elvis, there were too many ideas pinging about, too many clever lyrics, too much complexity for it to be a true pop hit. It was a musician’s or a music journalist’s idea of a great pop album, a distillation of great pop from the past. Not that of a teenager with the money to buy one album, or a couple of singles. That’s not a criticism. It’s just the way pop is.
It’s an album I’ve never grown tired of though, because it is always revealing new angles. There is such a rich variety. These days, I’d probably make the opener, “Beyond Belief” my favourite track. It’s dense and tense, like a looming thunderstorm. The atmosphere’s getting heavy and then crack! A distorted chorus erupts. Beyond Belief. The rumbling continues then it fades. It’s not so much a song as a soundtrack – a portent for the rest of the album. It’s followed by the falsetto weirdness of “Tears Before Bedtime” with Steve Nieve working overtime over the hint of a reggae rhythm. And then “Shabby Doll” comes along and brings it all down…
What a good album it is!
And next up was “Punch The Clock”. True genius!