Mystery Music March in April

Imperial Bedroom -- Elvis Costello and The Attractions

Suggested by Ian Jones of The Digi-Cream Times.

For a long time, for all of my life in fact, I was convinced there was no such thing as a perfect album. One that had no weak links on it whatsoever. One that, if a song were selected at random, or if you played it using the shuffle facility on a CD player, you wouldn't mind what track you heard.

Surely such an album couldn't existed. Surely, on even the so-called
masterpieces of popular music (Revolver, Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon, What's Going On, OK Computer), there's always one duff moment, one track to be tolerated rather than treasured?

I say I felt that way for all of my life. I should qualify that. What I mean is for all of my life up to about three weeks ago. Because I think I've just found such an album. In fact I know I have. I've owned it for around 10 years, but for some reason only recently realised that, yeah, it doesn't matter where I join it, it's exceptional. It's faultless. All the waythrough. From start to finish.

It is Imperial Bedroom, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, which is weird because it's not my favourite Costello album (which is Punch The Clock) nor his most consistent (which is Get Happy). Nonetheless it doesn't contain one song that is anything less than stunning and which, in and of themselves, are mini-masterpieces.

I think its secret is its musicality. Costello has always, was always from the beginning, feted for his lyrical dexterity and linguistic acrobatics. Such qualities are in glorious evidence here, all over the place, albeit leavened with a sharpened sense of realism, or scepticism, or perhaps just pessimism:

"Charged with insults and flattery, her body moves with malice;
Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?"
(Beyond Belief)

"Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning;
You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning"
(Man Out Of Time)

"So what if this is a man's world?
I want to be a kid again about it
Give me back my sadness
I couldn't hide it, even if I tried"
(Kid About It)

And especially...

"I'm the town cryer
And everybody knows
I'm a little down
With a lifetime to go"
(Town Cryer)

Never mind even more dizzying rhyme schemes, fit for A Level inspection:

"Little things just seem to undermine her confidence in him;
He was late this time last week.
Who can she turn to when the chance of coincidence is slim?
Because the baby isn't old enough to speak"
(The Long Honeymoon)

All this wordplay and syntactical derring-do, while perhaps looking rather arch and contrived written down, totally comes alive when wedded to the most spirited, imaginative and inspiring of music. There's so much melody and tonality poured into this album. Each track is a case study in how to produce - in all senses, creatively and technically - the perfect pop song. Not a note is superfluous. Words and music work in tandem throughout.

Part of this is due to the Attractions, Costello's band for much of his career, never sounding more resonant and dimensional than on this album. Dashes of instrumental brilliance are flecked all over the record like dabs of gold on a painting. A cheeky drum fill here; a magical bass riff there; keyboard ornamentation nigh-on everywhere - but never to the detriment of the greater whole.

The producer, Geoff Emerick, also had a big role. He was the bloke who engineered all the Beatles records from Revolver onwards, helping to create musical soundscapes - to use a cliché - in which everyday songs of universal sentiments somehow became statements of genius.

Such is the magic wrought here. Beyond Belief, a lament about, or possibly for, the state of the world in 1982, passes through Emerick's hands and ends up a juggernaut of tension and awe. The Long Honeymoon is the sonic equivalent of a film noir. Man Out Of Time is a rainbow of melodic colour and invention. And In Every Home ropes in an entire orchestra. And so on.

You could say it's indulgence. I'll admit the album took some time to
wheedle its way into my affections. What seals it, however, is the fact that on top of everything else, it's just a bloody great record to sing along to. And here's where all that scope and ambition pulls off its greatest coup, by virtue of giving you simply so much to choose from: you can attempt Elvis's main melody, or harmonise, or sing bits of the accompaniment, or mime bits of the arrangements... Anything goes.

Anyway, the fact this album has been sitting variously four inches, two metres and a corridor away from my nose for the last decade and not revealed itself in such a fashion to me until just the other week is a little disarming.

Now it has done, I'm worried about over-analysing it to the point where it ceases to be enjoyable. So I'll shut up and urge you to listen to Imperial Bedroom and let its complex, poignant, stoical but above all very human sentiments worm their way into your heart.

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