Some buddies of mine in a band called Barking Dogs were covering Elvis Costello's stuff from the early days. They were butchering it so badly that it ruined the songs for me. I tried to listen to Elvis' versions after enduring them turning their amps up to 11 and screaming the unintelligible lyrics, and I couldn't get into it. The atmosphere in those punk clubs where they played was enough to turn me off to the whole scene, actually. This definitely wasn't a world of "Peace, Love and Understanding," even though that appeared to be one of the titles they were covering. (One couldn't be sure. It could have been Piss, Muff and Lubrication for all I could tell.)
Whazz so funny 'bout
Piss, muff an' lubri-caaaa-tion?
Then I picked up a copy of Imperial Bedroom. I guess it was the artwork on the cover which made me buy it. What is the deal with that? There's this little guy who looks more like Prince than Elvis C. wailing on some sort of bone flute stuck up some fat girl's credenza. He's got on one fancy boot and the other foot looks like something they show on Art Bell's web page when discussing sightings in the Northwest. She seems oblivious and there are snake-like things either coming down from the ceiling to crawl into his brain, or coming out of his head and floating upwards. It's modern art. It's Picasso on mushrooms.
This was 1982 and I was ready for something new to listen to. I was sick unto death of Men At Work's lame pop, Journey's squealy overdone anthems, and J. Geils Band's teen angst crap.
I wasn't disappointed with Imperial Bedroom. It's a masterpiece. It's pure and clean and so packed full of solid emotion that it's hard to listen to straight through. You almost have to take a break. It's his sixth album, and one could imagine that the transcription of the lyrics without any breaks or punctuation in the liner notes could have been a tribute to Bob Dylan's sixth album, where he fully explored the concept of stream of consciousness. The production is elegant on this album. It was mastered by Geoff Emerick who engineered some of the Beatles' best stuff. But, for me, it's the lyrics and the piano player. Steve Nieve is the guy who plays the ever-loving shit out the piano on Armed Forces, and he does a lot of the work here. There's another piano player involved, Steve Mason, but if you're really into this music, you can tell who's playing when on Imperial Bedroom.
I saw Elvis C. play this entire album live one night at the newly built Mud Island in Memphis. I was enchanted. That Nieve guy played those licks on some little cheap electric piano and I could have been a nancy boy at Liberace's feet that night.
- "Beyond Belief"
"Just like the canals of Mars
And the great barrier reef
I come to you beyond belief."
"Tears Before Bedtime"
"Everybody knows I've been so wrong.
That's the problem and here's the hook."
- This is so impressive to use the hook concept to introduce the hook in the song. You thought Blues Traveler were the first to do that, didn't you?
"There's a girl in this dress,
There's always a girl in distress."
- It's sort of like Nabakov saying, "The sunglasses of the oft-sung lasses," isn't it?
"The Long Honeymoon"
"Who can she turn to when the chance of coincidence is slim?
'Cause the baby isn't old enough to speak."
- A marvelous treatment of the newlywed wife sitting at home waiting for the errant husband to show up, pretending she doesn't know what she knows.
"Man Out of Time"
"He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge.
He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege."
"I've seen such an unhappy couple,
Almost me, Almost you, Almost blue."
- This is my least favorite song on the album. It's a bit maudlin and is a hint of what Mr. C. will wind up doing with Burt Bacharach many, many years later.
"And In Every Home"
"Lying on a slag heap of blankets and magazines,
She's only thirty-five going on seventeen."
"The Loved Ones"
"Spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics;
We break wise guys just like matchsticks."
"Are you living in this world? Sometimes I wonder.
In between saying you've seen too much and saying you've seen it all before."
"Kid About It"
"So what if this is a man's world?
I want to be a kid again about it."
- This one pretty much sets the tone for the whole album. The optimistic words are always pointing to the back door where misery is just a couple of steps away. I don't know if Elvis C. was happy when he put this album out, but I do think he knew he'd never match it again, musically.
"Actions speak louder now than words,
By just a fraction."
"Boy With A Problem"
"It's the last thing I want to do . . .
Pull out like young lovers do."
"Many hands make light work;
Shorthand makes life easy."
- Where does he come up with these couplets? He's like a punk Shakespeare. It's timeless.
"You Little Fool"
"She fingers a string of pearls,
An imitation but he'll never know it.
Imitation lashes flutter above
Looking for an imitation of love."
- If you've got a daughter at home who's getting ready to date those horrible, horrible boys, you'll find this song hits home with you. Hard.
"Other boys use the splendour of their trembling lip.
They're so teddy bear tender and tragically hip."
- The perfect song to end this with. I guess you don't have to guess of whom he speaks? When he sang this in Memphis that night, I was Jell-O. Three Elvis Presley references in two perfect lines. And he admits that he is the town crier; the drunk wandering the streets singing . . . to no one.