Imperial Ail: Elvis Costello takes The Tower back to the Bedroom

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Elvis Costello | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com

On our way to the Tower Theater on Friday night, to witness Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ latest thunderous return, I explained the name of the band’s current tour – Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers – and one of my companions asked: “is that a Donald and Melania reference?” It’s a fair question. And perhaps something of a missed opportunity. Costello, who once planned to title an album Emotional Fascism, and later (to give just one example) penned a lovely, Irish-tinged waltz about defiling Margaret Thatcher’s grave (long before her actual death), could easily have offered us a bounty of pointed, tuneful political cynicism. Indeed, as he quipped early in the show, his oeuvre is littered with topical-sounding titles which he might have presented as “badly satirical,” from “Waiting for the End of the World” to “American Gangster Time” to “Brilliant Mistake.” (The last of those, incidentally, opens with a line whose dismal relevance even its author probably never foresaw: “He thought he was the king of America.”)

But no. This performance had its twisted gaze aimed at the unsavory past, not the unspeakable present. Imperial Bedroom, released in 1982, was Costello’s seventh album; his sixth with the Attractions. Just a few years removed from his blisteringly essential first trio, you might consider it the capstone of his classic initial run. It’s certainly the most ambitious work of his first decade; the most intricate and cerebral – or, from another perspective, the point at which his music’s emotional underpinnings were most completely suppressed (and compensated for) by wily wordplay and orchestral filigree. In any case, in this 40th anniversary year of his immaculate debut, My Aim Is True (which would have been the safe, crowdpleasing – and wrong – choice), Elvis has opted to mount a tour revisiting the lesser-known Bedroom – among his most admired albums, if not necessarily most beloved. The reasons why remain somewhat unclear. Bedroom was notoriously marketed with a promotional campaign centered around one word – “Masterpiece?” – and that question mark, for better or worse, still hangs around the album.

Elvis Costello | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com

Now, his daunting legacy notwithstanding, Costello’s no legacy act, and this was not your typical “plays-the-classic-album” affair. He and his band did indeed perform thirteen of Bedroom’s fifteen tracks (skipping the skippable “Little Savage” and, lamentably, the uncharacteristically heartfelt closer “Town Cryer”), but out of order and interspersed among other selections. (I saw Sebadoh do something similar for their Bakesale tour, but it ought to be more common practice – albums are sequenced differently from concerts for reasons.) Some thematic unity was provided (or at least suggested) by the delightfully mischievous images projected behind the band, featuring elements of Bedroom’s Picasso-quoting cover painting, “Snakecharmer with Reclining Octopus,” inserted into Costello’s other album covers along with an array of antique film posters and pulp crime paperbacks.

As to the other selections: Costello did attempt to make some explicit links between the songs – suggesting that the poignant infidelity ballad “The Long Honeymoon” could be seen as a sequel to the similarly noir-ish “Watching The Detectives” (even though I never really thought of that song as being about a couple.) And there’s a superficial logic to drawing from the albums immediately preceding Bedroom – from 1979’s Armed Forces (“Accidents Will Happen,” “Moods For Moderns”) through 1981’s Trust (“You’ll Never Be A Man,” “Shot With His Own Gun” – the first of many cabaret-styled piano ballads that would continue to pepper his output, Bedroom included, and dominate 2003’s North.) But next to Bedroom’s parade of sordid scenarios and domestic dysfunction (evidence, as he put it, of his advanced position in “the romantic misery stakes” – the album’s nearest excuse for a love song, “Human Hands,” is decidedly a half-measure) it was curious, and jarring, to hear the uncomplicated likes of “I Wanna Be Loved” and “Every Day I Write the Book.”

Elvis Costello | photo by K. Ross Hoffman for WXPN

It would’ve been interesting to delve into some of the deeper resonances with, for instance, the similarly ornate (and emotionally overwhelmed) Spike or Mighty Like a Rose (a truly overlooked/misunderstood gem, in my opinion.) But except for two fine new, unreleased songs, and Allen Toussaint’s swampy, fatalistic “On Your Way Down” (perhaps done as a tacit memorial to the recently departed Toussaint, with whom Elvis recorded it in 2006), there was nothing from his sprawling post-1986 output – somewhat disappointing for a tour presumably aimed at committed fans. (One wonders, also, what might have been possible in a smaller venue.)

So much for the intrigue of the “Other Chambers.” As for the Regal Boudoir itself – well, these are still some magnificent songs. The Imposters did an admirable job of replicating the elaborate arrangements – or coming as close as possible without an actual orchestra on hand – although the rather muddy sound at the Tower didn’t do them any favors. Things got off to a rollicking start with the swinging “Loved Ones” (a throwback to the ’60s-approximating sound of Get Happy!!), though fussier fare like “And In Every Home” was somewhat tougher going. I heard a lot of potential in the dramatic reworking of “Tears Before Bedtime” – transformed into a deep dark bluesy shuffle which was a major highlight of the set – but nothing else got that kind of revelatory treatment.

Elvis Costello | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com

Still, it was a lively, bountiful performance – Elvis was in great spirits, bantering affably, rebranding Philly as “the city of torment and heartbreak” (“especially up there in the balcony.”) (The crowd did seem little rough, at least around where I was sitting.) It was, as always, a treat to see his band, particularly the two former-Attractions left standing.  Pete Thomas remains one of rock’s great drummers, and his snaredrum cannonades (on the likes of “Green Shirt” and “King Horse”) are as thrilling as ever.  And Steve Nieve, who somehow managed to make a screaming polyester print shirt (which must have been garish even in 1982) seem almost classy, practically stole the show, flexing his impeccable classically-trained chops on a bright-red Steinway grand and a plethora of vintage keyboards.

The most revealing segment of the show came with the beginning of what was either the second set or a particularly lavish, dozen-song encore. After an obligatory solo-guitar run through “Alison,” which found Costello (whose voice, while in many ways more potent and versatile than it was 35 years ago, can also be distressingly pitchy) mostly failing to find a satisfying blend with his two backup singers – and before the rousing cavalcade of greatest-hits that closed out the night – he switched gears to the piano for a series of ballads. I’d never thought of it this way, but ballads are really at the heart of Imperial Bedroom. Most obviously, there’s the jazzy, enigmatically mournful “Almost Blue,” one of his most-covered compositions. But the bigger surprise, and the emotional climax of the show, was “Boy With A Problem,” a sleeper tucked away in the middle of side two, which he has apparently performed only once prior to this year. Not, as he explained, because the lyric was written by Squeeze’s Chris Difford, but because “Chris got a little too close to the truth.”

Elvis Costello | photo by K. Ross Hoffman for WXPN

As illuminated in his fascinating recent memoir, the period surrounding Imperial Bedroom coincided with the harrowing dissolution of Costello’s first marriage. (Not for nothing is the book titled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.) Somehow – perhaps because I was zero when the album came out, and a teenager when I first encountered and devoured it – it never really occurred to me that the caustically rendered romantic and domestic distress catalogued in Bedroom’s lyrics might be simply distorted and fragmented perspectives on Costello’s own experience. But that lyric, even with its Costellian puns and witticisms, truly does lay it all out there – and we got a glimmer of that truth in his performance on Friday. So, why, after so many years, and now that he’s happily re-remarried, is he taking us back to the Bedroom? Maybe it’s just taken him this long to be able to get there.

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