Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Nerves on a Knife's Edge

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom. I half-dreaded revisiting this pivotal 1982 masterpiece, for fear it wouldn't live up to the high status it's long occupied in the critical firmament, and--after an initial resistance on my part to its self-contained musical brilliance--in my own Costello pantheon.

I needn't have feared; if anything, the record sounds even richer and more resonant with age, from its magisterial songcraft to its utterly singular sonic palette, which is still unlike anything on any other Attractions record, let alone anyone else's. What struck me especially this time around was Elvis' impressively rangy vocal restraint, not to mention his ease in grabbing big notes without popping a neck vein. After years of getting used to the sound of his keening, straining, increasingly vibrato-addled larynx reach for a soulful wail or a punkish sneer, to hear his pipes gambol sweatlessly across these charts, not only the ballads but many of the rockers as well, feels like sweet relief.

Along similar lines, the record holds up as nearly oracular in terms of mapping out the diversions he would take in the coming decades: from Bacharachian and Big Band pop to tender piano standards, from stately neoclassism to spiky art-rock (I'd even rope in the word-drunk quasi-hip-hop of his newest release, Wise Up Ghost!; what else is "Beyond Belief," after all, but a kind of headlong, just-barely-sung rap?). Again, without quite sounding like any record before or after, Imperial Bedroom is like a deep-dish sampler of his pop stylings to come (with the glaring exception of country and folk, which he would spend another masterwork, King of America, mapping out). This might be why this record still turns off fans of the passionate pub-rock precocity of his debut record, or the glinting, unsheathed thrust and parry of his first great Attractions albums, This Year's Model and Armed Forces; by contrast, this Bedroom all sounds too polite, too orchestrated. It would be a mistake, though, to hear the album's sheen as a gloss, as even I did at first; I couldn't see that its considerable gleam was not deflection but crystallization--that by neatly placing the unhinged emotions and tightly coiled, self-defensive patter that are Costello's usual fare within perfectly poised pop constructions, this record achieves a cumulative intensity of feeling that's beyond the reach of the rawest punk scream.

The record does contain, in fact, a series of bloodcurdling, barely human screams (in the fierce framing music of the majestic, Dylanesque "Man Out of Time"), as well as plenty of jagged edges and dark corners. And examined for more than a moment, the architecture of even the most standard-sounding tunes here is actually pretty eccentric, and the record's seeming dips into genre (“The Long Honeymoon,” “Almost Blue”) are deceptively lulling. All the songs here, in short, are roiling, weird, as surprisingly shaped and idiosyncratic as any Costello has made. And the record's odd sound palette--the often absurd high-low vocals, the clatter of harpsichord and sitar, spacey organs that seem to float on their own otherworldly fumes, bull-in-a-China-shop bass parts that keep puncturing the decorum--makes an ideal match for the songs’ unclassifiable scope and scale. Costello has made great records since, and even some that hang together more or less as well as a whole. But I’d venture that if he wanted to, he could rest his reputation entirely on this exquisitely appointed Bedroom.

Cinco Paul Well put. As you know, it's my favorite. The most perfect album ever made, outside of anything by the Beatles.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Cinco: I feel that way even more now. It was an outlier at the time, and almost hard to see HOW great it was (for me). And even though it was early, it feels even more like a career capper.
Brian Parks A great record.
Joe McDade A few records simply floored me when I simply listened to them cold for the first time, without the hook of an already-favorite tune to ease me in. The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" and "Abbey Road," Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," Mazzy Star's "So Tonight That I Might See," and--don't laugh--Styx's "Grand Illusion." "Imperial Bedroom" is on that list. The first few second of "Beyond Belief" announced that something wonderful had been loosed upon us.
Justin Warner This was the one that hooked me. The sequence of Long Honeymoon-scream-Man Out of Time-scream-Almost Blue alone would be a worthy artistic legacy.

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