Astonishing the crew and audience of Saturday Night Live during his American TV debut a few years back, Elvis Costello truncated a planned performance after only a few bars and launched instead into a frenetic, riveting version of “Radio, Radio”—the then-fledgling rock artist’s venomous assault on the medium that he most needed to have on his side.
The incident embraces many of the factors that have defined this British singer/songwriter/guitarist’s idiosyncratic career. Angry, fearless, idealistic, gifted and monomaniacally devoted to his craft, Costello has also proven to be full of surprises.
His latest and best surprise is Imperial Bedroom, his eighth album since 1977, which impresses first with its sheer musical scope. You expect variety from a man who rose to fame via the punk/new wave bandwagon, who admires the pop confections of Abba and who journeyed to Nashville to make an entire album (Almost Blue) of tunes by country legends like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Still, the effortless genre-hopping of Imperial Bedroom is arresting. On side one alone, Costello manages everything from the jazzy “Shabby Doll” with its staccato piano chords and the blistering “Man Out of Time,” which seems like somethng out of mid-60s Dylan, to the accordion-spiced country lament called “The Long Honeymoon” and the lushly orchestrated, pop-styled “. . . And In Every Home.” There are four other songs on the side and eight more on the flip, but you get the idea.
The extent to which Costello seems to have finally explored recording-studio potential is the second surprise. Past albums, which appeared at a furious pace and contain as many as 20 tunes each, mingle throwaways with classics and seem in places to have been waxed with one-take casualness. Imperial Bedroom, on the other hand, boasts polished performances, well-conceived segues and a full-bodied Geoff Emerick production that suggests a much more painstaking approach.
The eminently listenable results show Costello to be a master of all the turf he surveys. His dynamic arrangements and addictive, sharply honed melodies command attention throughout, as does his voice, which he uses to beg, tease, whisper, preah, cajole, charm—and prove once again that you don’t need a five-octave range to go down as a great singer. His sometimes abstruse but always clever lyrics, meanwhile, belie the statement he once made about knowing nothing of human emotion beyond revenge and guilt. You’ll detect those feelings here, certainly, but you’ll also note a good deal of warmth and vulnerability in these psychologically complex tales of love and betrayal. One escapable conclusion is that Elvis Costello still has some surprises up his sleeve.