When Columbia records released Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom — the angry young Brit's seventh album in six years — the company took out ads that read, Masterpiece? Without question, Imperial Bedroom is one of Costello's major artistic statements — and arguably the high point in the career of a prolific musician who has consistently delivered impressive work.
Perhaps reacting to the creative limitations of his preceding album, Almost Blue — a disappointing collection of country covers recorded in Nashville with the veteran producer Billy Sherill — Costello returned to form on Imperial Bedroom. It is a far-ranging gem that finds him moving all over the musical map, from the ominous, jazzy "Shabby Doll" to the Sgt. Pepper-esque pop of "... And in Every Home." Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh wrote, "Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist."
When it comes to Imperial Bedroom, Costello is its harshest — and maybe its only — critic. "In retrospect, I feel some of the songs are just not well written enough," he said in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. "Some of them were attempts to create a little mystery room the listener could go into. And in some cases, the subject matter is maybe too large for the song's own good. 'The Loved Ones' is about the trap of playing to posterity, and it's just too vague a subject for a song. It's too theoretical."
Asked about the Columbia ad, Costello grimaced and said, "There were some ludicrous things claimed on behalf of that record." Some reviewers compared Costello to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Costello would later collaborate with McCartney), as well as Tin Pan Alley immortals like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
"It could be momentarily flattering," Costello said of the praise. "But then you realize that, strange as it may seem, some people don't like Cole Porter, you know? It made me very perverse on that tour. I'd be playing amphitheaters in the Midwest, and I'd do eight ballads in a row, only two of which would be mine. In the end, all those comparisons just made things more difficult."
According to Geoff Emerick — the veteran recording engineer for the Beatles and the producer of Imperial Bedroom — his approach to recording the artfully crafted album was actually quite simple. "We were trying to capture Elvis's spontaneity, because he's a first-take kind of guy," says Emerick. "We wanted to get back to basics." Work at AIR Studios in London proceeded quickly. "Elvis is very fast," Emerick says. "When we did the first session, there was an onslaught of something like eighteen songs, which we cut in fast takes. It took me quite by surprise. From then on, it was a matter of thinking which ones should we record."
The savage guitar and wordless screaming that link three of the songs on the album's first side — "The Long Honeymoon," "Man Out of Time," "Almost Blue" — was something of an afterthought. "That may have been part of a song we didn't use," says Emerick. "We just faded it in and out." Considerable thought, however, went into keyboardist Steve Nieve's inventive orchestrations for many of the album tracks. "Steve didn't want the standard orchestration — first and second violins, cellos and so on — on 'Town Cryer' and some of the other songs. So we used, I think, eighteen violas, which was really unique."
Despite the rave reviews, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles, and the album peaked at Number Thirty in the United States. Still, it is a favorite of many Costello fans, as well as producer Emerick's. "Elvis is a major songwriter," he says. "He just oozes talent. And we captured Elvis then and there. It was easy — I pulled up the fader, and away we went."