Elvis Costello’s Masterpiece? Imperial Bedroom in Kansas City
Hard on the heels of The Bridge’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” comes a concert commemorating one of that album’s most direct descendants.
It was 35 years ago that Elvis Costello released “Imperial Bedroom,” and on Friday, June 9, he and his band The Imposters will play it in its entirety at CrossroadsKC. But never one to adhere to a direct narrative (as readers of his memoir “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink” can attest), the songs will be presented out of their original order and interspersed with other works from his catalog.
Despite being closely associated with punk rock (his 1977 debut “My Aim is True” arrived in the same moment as first LPs by The Clash and Sex Pistols), no artist has proven a more natural heir to The Beatles. Right down to his Liverpudlian roots (his mother is a native), Costello’s regional heritage and musical output place him in the small club of the Fab Four’s near-peers.
When Costello and his band The Attractions went into London’s AIR Studios in 1981 to begin work on “Imperial Bedroom,” they stood in a similar stage chronologically, if not commercially, as The Beatles at the time of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” The Beatles’ landmark was their eighth LP, and it came four years after their first. “Imperial Bedroom” was Costello’s seventh in five years. Like The Beatles, Costello was keen to develop his sound, and he had set aside the time — and recruited the assistance — to make it happen.
Costello came to prominence in the late 1970s on the strength of two lean and aggressive albums, and then expanded his sonic palette on “Armed Forces” (1979) and “Trust” (1981). But on “Imperial Bedroom,” he went further, invoking the lush, classic pop of Tin Pan Alley and giving it the full Beatles treatment. As he recently told Tim Finn of The Kansas City Star, he and his band had 12 weeks of studio time to record (previously, two to three weeks had been his limit), and they were determined to find a way to use the time. “We said, ‘What did the Beatles do?’ They hired an orchestra. They had a harpsichord. Let’s do that. We weren’t trying to sound like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ but it was like, give yourself the space for an instrument you think you might need.”
In addition to their usual guitars, bass, drums and keys, Elvis and the Attractions employed strings, marimba and accordion, among other exotic sounds. And they did it under the direction of Geoff Emerick, who had been the studio engineer for much of The Beatles’ best work, including “Pepper.”
Emerick produced the album from behind the console in studio 2, and he occasionally went next door to studio 1 to enlist the aid of Beatles producer George Martin, who was there with Paul McCartney making “Tug of War,” Macca’s first recording since John Lennon’s death. Costello even employed one of Lennon’s writing tricks on “Imperial Bedroom.” Just as Lennon had built the “Pepper” track “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” off the words of an antique circus poster, Costello’s “Shabby Doll” was inspired by an old music hall poster he saw hanging in a pub.
The result of the sessions, not surprisingly, was stellar, and it prompted Columbia Records to mount an audacious ad campaign that featured the album cover and the word “masterpiece?” complete with a question mark that urged you to decide for yourself.
Whether this was his finest album was a matter of taste. At least four of its predecessors possessed at least some colorable claim to being masterpieces themselves, but none in such a carefully constructed manner. From the buoyant pop of “Tears Before Bedtime,” to the melancholy torch ballad “Almost Blue,” to swelling strings of “Town Cryer,” Costello appeared to transcend the Angry Young Man persona he had adopted early in his career.
But as Costello writes in “Unfaithful Music,” the same rage lay below the polished surface. “The songs on ‘Imperial Bedroom’ were about the same lies and deceits in the songs of [the previous album] ‘Trust,’” he writes, “only now they were being perpetrated behind gilded doors or during the murky excursions of nighttime.”
Indeed, Costello’s lyrics were as acerbic as ever, like on “Shabby Doll,” where he sang “He wants to be a fancy man / But he’s nothing but a nancy boy / He’s all pride and no joy,” or “I would have waited all my life / Just to make love out of something other than spite,” on the aptly-titled “Little Savage.”
Still, the clever wordplay and sophisticated arrangements make it all go down easy. For a time, the work even sparked a suspicion that Costello was aiming to move from rock and roll to an older tradition. In fact, The New York Times’ review of the album invoked Cole Porter’s name and referenced a number of standards, including “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Ira Gershwin, who wrote that song with his brother George, was 83 years old when he read the review. He sent his assistant out to buy a copy of “Imperial Bedroom.”
There’s no record of Gershwin’s reaction, but there must have been a glint of recognition. If Costello wasn’t a peer, he was as close to an heir as was working in popular music. Surely the great man, the one who wrote the words to “Love is Here to Stay,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and so many other evergreens must have approved when he heard Costello sing “Almost blue / It’s almost touching, it will almost do / There is part of me that’s always true.”
That’s a standard. Maybe a masterpiece.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He's on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.