Behind the Album: ‘Imperial Bedroom’ by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

When an artist is as consistently great for as long as Elvis Costello has been, it’s always difficult to choose the greatest album from his entire catalog. We’d be willing to guess that a random selection of five E.C. fans might give you five different choices. A consensus, however, just might point in the direction of his 1982 album Imperial Bedroom.

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The album featured Costello and his outstanding band the Attractions taking advantage of the studio in ways they’d never tried before. In addition, Costello allowed his lyrics to wander much closer into a personal, confessional lane than ever before. It all came together in an album as lyrically cutting as it was musically colorful.

Impressively Imperial

Elvis Costello’s artistic momentum rolled impressively through his first five albums of original material. Still, there was a bit of been-there, done-that feel by the time he reached the 1981 album Trust. That could have been why he and the Attractions decided to do an album of country covers (Almost Blue) later that year to change things up a bit.

When they returned to the studio in 1982, they easily could have slipped back into the mode of their previous records, with furious tempos, Costello singing in a breathless sneer, and instrumentation sticking mostly with the basic four-piece setup of Costello on guitar, Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums.

But Costello decided to take some creative chances, spurred perhaps by involving Geoff Emerick as his co-producer. It was the first time that Costello had chosen to go with someone other than Nick Lowe as producer on an album of original material. Emerick, with his experience as an engineer for The Beatles, was more than willing to try new approaches.

As a result, Costello and company expanded upon the eight-track recordings the band originally made of the songs with all kinds of fascinating embellishments. There were strings and horns, harpsichords, and even an accordion that took three of the band members to play. In addition, Costello’s vocals were altered with all kinds of effects, and when they weren’t, he adopted a subtler singing style more suited to the sensitive songs he was writing.

Costello Confessionals

Costello initially thought of Imperial Bedroom as an optimistic album. He was clearly responding to the bright, chirpy music. Those removed from the process of making it heard something quite different when they listened to the lyrics of the songs.

Many of the tracks deal with people who’ve indulged in self-deception for so long they no longer recognize themselves. Costello had often couched his more personal writing by directing his potent emotions outward with anger or defiance. On Imperial Bedroom, he may have written in the guise of several different characters, but it’s easy to get the impression that he was revealing more of his himself than ever before.

Revisiting the Bedroom

Imperial Bedroom remains a thrilling listen, one that keeps you on your toes with the stylistic changes from song to song, while drawing you in with the revelations in the lyrics. The twitchy intensity of the opener “Beyond Belief” gives way to the chirping piano and keyboard interplay of “Tears Before Bedtime.” Yet for as different as they are musically, they both tell fiercely honest tales of romantic misadventure.

In fact, affairs and crimes of the heart make up a majority of the subject matter on the record. Costello moans his way through the torch song “Almost Blue,” slithers through the film noir-ish “A Long Honeymoon,” and shrugs his way in and around the orchestral flourishes of “Town Cryer,” with no happy endings to be found any of them. Even in the relatively happy “Human Hands,” the narrator’s desperation to get things right hints he doesn’t exactly suggest a settled love.

The centerpiece of Imperial Bedroom is “Man Out of Time,” a stunning combination of lyrical eloquence and musical splendor. The Attractions play elegantly while Costello sings in wounded tones of a scandal that envelops all those involved. The song is bookended by sections of unhinged playing and Costello screaming, as if the narrator needs to cathartically expunge his pain before and after intricately describing it.

“Man Out of Time” probably would have made a good choice as a single from the album, rather than the record company’s choice of the somewhat middling “You Little Fool,” which didn’t do much at all. That didn’t help Imperial Bedroom get much of a foothold with the wider public. Perhaps his frustration with the album’s lack of success in that manner is why Costello leaned into pop-friendly productions for his next few albums (a move he later regretted.)

Posterity, however, has been extremely kind to Imperial Bedroom. The combination of Beatlesque flair and biting observations still sounds fresh today. Elvis Costello’s best? Well, we believe it is. In any case, it’s undoubtedly a peak in a career with more than a few of them.

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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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