Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ Imperial Bedroom was released on July 2nd, 1982. It was produced by Geoff Emerick. (Yes, the very same one who engineered The Beatles’ Abbey Road.) The working titles were, Revolution Of The Mind, Music To Stop Clocks, and P.S. I Love You. The cover is an art piece called “Snakecharmers & Reclining Octopus” by Barney Bubbles. It is a pastiche of “Three Musicians” by Picasso.
In the summer of 1981, I discovered Trust by Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Not only did I discover it, I played the shit out of it on my Walkman.
I stretched that cassette tape out so bad with so many fast-forwards and rewinds. The end result, the sound quality turned to garbage, more hiss than tone, and the tape warbled fluctuating from slow to fast. In retrospect, Trust would be the equivalent to Rubber Soul, as it was a major turning point in Elvis Costello’s songwriting. I couldn’t wait for the next album.
Sadly, Elvis Costello churned out Almost Blue, a tribute to all of his favorite country songs in the fall of 1981. Big disappointment, to this day, the second worst album of Costello’s career, the first being North , a collection of pompous tripe with slow and unimaginative arrangements categorized as jazz. It reached number 1 on the US Traditional Jazz chart. Must have been a bad year for traditional jazz. Kenny G released a greatest hits record in 2003, it reached number 2 on the Contemporary Jazz Albums Chart. Just goes to prove that artistic integrity and sales are two separate and distinct monsters. I wonder if the music industry just makes up genres so they can make established artists feel better so they can rank on some sort of music chart.
Then, I saw this:
Masterpiece? Elvis Costello sporting new glasses making him look less cartoonish and trademarked? I could not wait for July 2nd, 1982, but because I did not have a time machine, I had no other choice.
I was working at The Record Bar in Northbrook Court, a chain of record retail stores based out of North Carolina. The virtue called patience paid off. The UPS driver unceremoniously dropped off three boxes. I opened the boxes like it was God damn Christmas. Imperial Bedroom had arrived. I picked it up. I stared at it for a long time. What if it sucks? The Knack had burned me three years earlier. Do I listen to it now on the horrible sound system of the store?
Six hours later, I am in my bedroom. I open the record, and pull out the sleeve. This is what I saw.
It appeared to be a lyric sheet, but what a jumbled mess it was. Single-spaced with slight gaps where punctuation belonged. I put the needle on the record. It begins with an accentuated bass drone, followed by Elvis calmly singing, “History repeats the old conceits. The glib replies the same defeats. Keep your finger on important issues with crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues.”
This was different. Elvis’s voice was less angry. He had more range. Using studio vocal effects, he overlaps the different voices into a chaotic collage of verse and chorus. He ends with “Now I am beyond belief.” So was I, but in a different context.
“Tears Before Bedtime” is next. With lyric sheet firm in hand, it takes me a moment to find my place. “I know the name on the tip of your tongue and I know that accusing look.” What begins a quirky melody, soon gels when the chorus kicks in. As it ends, it riffs on an octave harmony, “I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to fight, how wrong can I be, before I am right?” Pure earworm. Once it gets stuck in your head, good luck removing it.
“Shabby Doll” follows. Beginning with a phlanged guitar, it is a moody noir piece pointing out the shabby doll in different situations. It is dawning on me that this album still has all the anger, but in the context of mature musical motifs and arrangements.
“The Long Honeymoon” follows. The style is almost tango, almost bossa nova, almost German cabaret, and a very fitting device for this tale of philandering and failed romance in a suburban setting.
Then it segues into chaos, a scream and a band on the verge of jamming too hard. Then it slows down and kicks into a medium groove, “So this is where he came to hide, when he ran from you.”
“Man Out Of Time” was the single released to support Imperial Bedroom. Given the density of the album, it must have been difficult to pick out a single, but record labels and their inherent greed dictates stupid mandates. Thank you for fucking up old school record label practices Napster.
The single ends with the chaos it began with, and fades out.
“Almost Blue” is the perfect follow up, a cocktail lounge blues song which transcends with dark lyrics comparing a former relationship to a current relationship. Bonus, it contains one of the greatest bass lines. It was originally written for Chet Baker.
Side one concludes with “…And In Every Home”. Beginning with the a cappella of Costello singing “You turn to the sinister when you get the boot sliding down the banister.” An orchestra accompanies his plaintive vocal. This is what baroque is made of.
As the inner groove played out, I pushed my slacked-jaw shut. I hit repeat. I listened to side one five times. I had discovered a pop masterpiece. It would be a few days before I digested side two.