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56th Favorite: Blood and Chocolate, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Blood & Chocolate. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1986, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe and Colin Fairley.
Purchased 1999.

bloodchocolatealbum

56nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Often referred to as an “angry young man,” Elvis Costello has never been angrier than on this collection of 11 rough, bitter and spiteful tunes – and they sound TERRIFIC! The Attractions play loud and straight, offering little adornment, and Costello sings of the women who done him wrong and the ugliness around him, the only state his vengeful eyes can see. It’s a bit overwhelming, but the tunes are great and his vocals are, too!
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I have been bobbing in a great sea of anger for months. All of America has.

You see, a giant, orange, talking turd has recently spent a year tapping cute-cat-1into many white Americans’ hatefulness, bigotry and low self-esteem to cause a flatulescent release of their previously (mostly) un-vented anger. What were they angry about? Well, the temerity of America to elect an African American as president – twice! And this anger drove them to ensure that no smart-ass woman was going to follow him there. “We’d rather have a childish business failure who is clearly lying to our faces – as long as he’s a white man,” they said. (I’d typically find links to references for all these claims, but if you’re reading this and don’t believe what I’m saying … well, my links won’t help you.) This stinky piece of shit will soon be president.

While this was happening, a large group of intellectual people who have difficulty disguisingcute-dog-1 their condescension toward the less well-educated whites around them (but who make a bit of an effort if the dimwit in question is a person of color) were filled with rage over the phony “journalists” on TV and interwebs and newspapers who realized that they’d get better election-year ratings and more “likes” if they pretended that debunked stories of one candidate’s email servers were the equivalent of the enormous totality of evidence that the other candidate was profoundly disturbed and unworthy of the presidency, thus keeping the race close.

The outcome of this election has also caused tremendous anger within myself. Anger at fellow cute-cat-2whites who have now made me feel like I should apologize to every woman and every person of color and every immigrant I know or meet, or perhaps wear a sign that says, simply, “Did Not Vote for Hateful Orange Turd.” Anger at whiny, entitled “millennials” whose mommies never told them that their snowflake-specialness and wall of participation trophies wouldn’t be enough to ensure a perfect candidate ran for president every time. Anger at the entire American process which is patently undemocratic, and the Myth of the Constitution that is taught in schools, and so perpetuates the dysfunction of the system. And anger at myself for getting so angry. I really shouldn’t allow myself to get so angry that I’m in the state I am now: questioning the value of long friendships and family connections; questioning the worth of the u.s.a. as a place to keep my kids safe and among decent folks; questioning whether it’s even worthwhile counting down my favorite albums.

As a child I was taught that getting angry was a bad thing. cute-bunny“Well, getting mad won’t help!” my mom often told me at times when it was most unhelpful – for instance, when I thought a teacher gave me an unfair grade; or when the baseball game I was looking forward to playing in was rained out; or if someone at school said something mean to me. Each hurdle in life was to be faced with a smile, and if you couldn’t overcome a hurdle without anger, well, then it was probably better to just accept the fact that you weren’t crossing it and learn to adapt to life on this side of the hurdle. With a smile.

I would try to follow mom’s guidelines, but I still found myself getting angry in certain anger-inducing situations. And so, since I wasn’t supposed to get angry, I started feeling bad about myself for not being able to control my anger. Finally, after a game of intramural basketball cute-dog-2(of all things) in college, I decided to change. After a particularly troubling loss, a referee told me, “You’re good, but you’d be a hell of a player if you didn’t get so angry out there. When you play angry, your game gets worse.” This sweaty, pot-bellied, middle-aged man in Sansabelt poly-stretch pants couldn’t have known, but the best way to reach me with any message is to wrap it up in flattery of my (rather spare) athletic abilities. I endeavored to learn to let stuff roll off my back, to shrug off small slights and injustices, to transform myself into the “happy-go-lucky guy.” (I recognize now how closely the “happy-go-lucky guy” mirrored my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.”)

cute-cat-ducksThe only problem with the “happy-go-lucky guy” is that he isn’t me! I spent 10 years ignoring anger and pretending to be “chill” about things that really upset me, while still feeling the anger rise within me, and having it burst out in weird, unexpected ways, just as it did in my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.” And then, afterwards, I’d still end up feeling guilty about it. I was right back to where I was as a child! It took a good psychotherapist and a good girlfriend and several years of living to reach the point where I am now: still unsure of how to best relate to feelings of anger, but at least conscious of them, and their effects on me. The biggest change since the “happy-go-lucky-guy” days is that I now clearly understand that the FEELINGS of anger are normal, and they are separate from, and different than, the ACTIONS of anger. This understanding has made me, I think, a better person and has clearly made me a better parent/husband/friend than I otherwise would be.

The reason this distinction helps is that – first of all – it allows me to feel okay about being angry. Anger is normal – even the Dalai Lama himself gets angry sometimes. Secondly, when these feelings are identified as separate from the actions of anger, it allows me to ask the question, “So, what am I going to do about it?” When feelings and actions of anger are mingled, chaos reigns and solutions are not easily reached. cute-polar-bearThis mingling of feelings and actions is often described as a statement of “When I get mad, I …” For example, “When I get mad, I scream at people!” “When I get mad, I break things!” “When I get mad, I stop passing to my teammates and take all the shots myself!” It gives the holder of the feelings license to act in ways that may be hard on others, or dangerous, or not conducive to winning basketball games. After all, if anger is a typical human emotion, and part of my anger is throwing a lamp at you, well, we’re all just going to have to accept a few lamps whizzing around as just part of my anger “thing.”

However, if actions are recognized as separate from the feelings of anger, this can lead to any range of actions on my part. I now have a selection of responses. I can scream and shout, I can write a letter, I can vent to a loved one, I can make some art, I can call a timeout and explain to my teammates that #40 continues to set up on the three-point line and drain his shots, and somebodyfriendhug (Bob, I’ll just give you a look, no need to name names in the huddle … for now) has to get on him and get a hand in his face!!!

I can write a blog post that references a human piece of shit who will be the most powerful person in the world. I can mock the ridiculous babies who voted for him. I can hug my family and keep them close. I can continue to support and work for the policies in which I believe. I can get together with my liberal friends, who – like me – have supported everything that the piece of shit stands against, and we can vent and chat and plan our actions and feel secure in the knowledge that it’s not we who are fucked up, it is the turd’s supporters. I can pity those ugly turd voters, for their hate and ignorance cute-cat3and childishness won’t get them what they think they want; and it won’t change who I am, or what I believe, or what I know: that – as Dr. Martin Luther King said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

And when my anger subsides, I can continue to choose love as my guiding principle. That will be the best “Fuck You” to those supporters of President Turd – because when I have reached that place I won’t even feel like I’m saying “Fuck You,” but those assholes will still think I am.

And I can listen to music. And it just so happens that my #56 album is one of the angriest albums I know: Blood & Chocolate. I didn’t plan to listen to the angriest album I own during the angriest weeks of my country’s existence since 1865, it just worked out that way – the universe has a sense of humor. Or maybe just a good sense of timing – it’s hard to find humor right now.

elvis-faceI’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. How I was interested in him as a young teen in the late 70s and early 80s, but never bought an album. How I saw him sing a song on a movie on TV. How I enjoyed his MTV videos, and respected his words and music, and saw him, in 1986, in one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life, but still never bought an album until the late 1990s.

By the time Blood & Chocolate came out, in 1986, I already thought of Elvis Costello as a has-been. Sometime in my freshman year of college, I had heard his remake of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and I thought “Okay, he’s done. As soon as an artist starts pilfering old hits, it signals the end of the line.” By then, songs like “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” and “Watching the Detectiveselvis1 and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding” seemed like ancient events.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, my girlfriend’s little sister announced, “Elvis Costello’s new record is called Blood & Chocolate! Isn’t that such a cool name??!” I remember thinking, “That poor kid. Doesn’t even realize he’s a has-been. She should get into a hot new band, built to last, like Night Ranger.” However, I did think “Blood & Chocolate” was an excellent name for an album, immediately conveying the basic duality of human relationships.

Costello writes, in his autobiography of 2015, attractions-1that the album was recorded while The Attractions were not getting along with each other. The band was angry about their limited participation in his most recent album, King of America. Costello was struggling with the realization that The Attractions weren’t capable of playing some of his newer songs properly. The tension was palpable. Producer Nick Lowe captured it by recording the band playing at near-concert volume, and using limited overdubs to make the sound on the record immediate and loud – like a cry of pain when you smash your thumb. In the autobiography, Costello compares the songs to “freshly inflicted wounds,” and “blurred and unfortunate Polaroids that people used to keep to document their worst desires and unhappy love affairs before we had the blessings of phone cameras.”

The tone of the album is set immediately on the clattering chords that open it, sounding almost like a cranky child banging on a guitar in frustration.

“Blood and Chocolate/I hope you’re satisfied what you’ve done,” Elvis sings on “Uncomplicated,” as the band slams their instruments again and again on a single note. “You think it’s over now/But we’ve only just begun.” The lyrics are a bit obscure, but their delivery indicates it to be about a fearful man who won’t accept the fact his girlfriend is gone. It’s simple to him – he wants her back. Keyboardist Steve Nieve plays some of his whirling organ riffs, familiar to Attractions fans, but other than that the song is really instrumentally unadorned. It’s a one note song in many ways, and that one note is anger.

The next song presents a more fiery, less smoldering anger that allows The Attractions to really shine. If there could be any doubts about the song’s theme, they are erased by the title: “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”

Elvis has always been fond of these songs with vocal-only openings. attractionsBruce Thomas’s busy, roller-coaster baseline propels the song, and Steve Nieve’s chiming keyboards in the choruses sound really great. Drummer Pete Thomas is perfectly sloppy and wonderful. But it’s Elvis’s furious vocal delivery, spitting venom at a lover who’s found someone else, that makes the song work. He never seems to give himself easy lyrics to sing, fitting the words in very tightly within the melody, but he definitely has a sense of humor, as in the lines “He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after/Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter.” (Pork sword – heh.) The effect of the song is not unlike watching a customer ahead of you in line chew out a clerk and storm off. However, instead of feeling uncomfortable and awkward, I want to hear more.

Luckily, the next song is even better – and just as bitter. Elvis packs even more words into the melody of “Tokyo Storm Warning,” and this time their target isn’t one person.

It’s clear from reading the lyrics that the song is about the approaching end of the world, and his indifference to it. And hearing its references to the KKK, and imagery of bleak life around spinning-tourthe globe while the wealthy thrive makes me wonder if Mr. Costello had a crystal ball back in 1986 that projected 30 years forward. Once again, he fires these lyrics off with intensity, and heightening the rage is the fact that there are no breaks from singing – verse and chorus follow verse and chorus, with barely a break to catch breath. The song is reminiscent of a silly old falsetto 60s song, “Bread and Butter,” (which I first heard on a TV commercial) but the band elevates it under Nick Lowe’s wall-of-noise production. There’s a nifty backwards guitar line at the end, but other than that the song is simple, relentless fury.

It might sound like it’s all too much, all this anger, but the melodies and sound and Elvis’s charismatic voice keep it from overwhelming me. And he also has a different take on the emotion on songs like the cleverly titled “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head.”

On this track, the anger turns inward, becomes sadness. It’s a nieveday-in-the-life of unrequited love, and its lyrics’ descriptions of that condition are reminiscent of The Beatles’ excellent Revolver track “For No One.” Musically, I really like the chord progression as the song moves from verse to chorus, for example beginning about 0:55, and at 1:14, as Steve Nieve’s organ subtly bolsters Elvis’s vocals, which are – as with every song on Blood & Chocolate – squarely front and center in the recording.

There are a few of these slower, more contemplative songs about misery and sadness on the album. “Battered Old Bird” is a slow burn of a song describing a horrible landlord and his wretched tenants. “Poor Napoleon” is a mid-tempo diatribe against love that tips its hand early with the opening lines “I can’t lie on this bed anymore/it burns my skin/You can take the truthful things you’ve said to me/And fit them on the head of a pin.” elvisThis album is listening perfection on those days when nothing’s going right, and fuck everybody anyway!

But there are a few respites from the rage – as there would have to be. The 60s-sounding “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” is a jaunty relief-valve of a song placed mid-album to let the listener, perhaps, dance the anger out instead of wallowing in it. “Blue Chair” has another rolling bass line to carry it, a straightforward ode to sadness with really cool vocals, especially in the last verse, when he alters the melody.

One of my favorite melodies on the album is “Crimes of Paris,” in which, once again, Elvis’s heart was broken – this time to Mythic Proportions.

The melody ranges far and wide, and Elvis performs it brilliantly,cig-girl always coming home to a sing-along chorus that references “the cigarette girl in the sizzle hot pants,” which conjures great imagery of a woman content to serve the men around her. In reading all the lyrics from the album, trying to tease out what it is that has piqued Elvis’s anger and caused it to rage so deeply and with such strength, I get the sense that much of it has to do with women who aren’t “cigarette girl”-ish enough. He’s been burned by women who don’t see their relationship in the same way he does, who’ve acted on their displeasure to seek out new romances, leaving him behind to write great songs with clever lyrics about it all. He can’t get over it. He won’t get over it. He explains it pretty clearly on one of my favorite songs ever, the emotionally haunting “I Want You.”

I first heard this song when I purchased a “Greatest Hits” album of Costello’s. Without listening closely to the words, it sounded sort of like a love song, similar to John Lennon’s epic Abbey Road piece, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” My good friend and Beatles fanatic Dr. Dave had recently gotten engaged, so – as I often did – I decided to celebrate by sending him a CD of songs. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll put this Elvis Costello love song next to Lennon’s song, and it’ll be cool because they have the same title, which is repeated frequently throughout the piece!” Then I listened to the lyrics and realized, “This isn’t really a celebration of love …”

The song opens with an acoustic love poem, sung troubadour-style, elvis-guitarthat ends (0:48) with the word “breath” sung on an unexpected note, followed closely by a startlingly discordant chord. The song builds over the next 6 minutes, adding instruments every few lines, intensity increasing as Costello again fumes over a woman who chose to be with another man. His imagery throughout conveys with withering directness his deep feelings of hurt and, what else, anger. “It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for/It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing/It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.” After each sordid detail he reminds us “I want you.” It’s another vocal masterpiece, but Elvis’s guitar is nice in subtle ways as well. He makes great use of his tremolo bar, and plays a fittingly clamoring guitar solo midway through (3:21). By about five minutes, the song has dispensed all the wisdom it has (“The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark/It scares you witless/But in time you see things clear and stark.”) and Elvis is left crooning against Nieve’s organ. It’s a song that always sends chills up my spine. (There is also a tremendous version that I highly recommend by list-member Fiona Apple, accompanied by Elvis himself.)

The album ends on what sounds like a happy note, “Next Time Round.”

At a minimum, the song could be considered … hopeful … perhaps. I mean, it does at least consider the possibility that there will be a “next time.” smashThe despondency of some of the other songs is gone, but the lyrics do reveal the bitterness that seems to have become his best friend on Blood & Chocolate. There is nice harmony singing throughout, and Bruce Thomas’s bass pumps the song along. It’s an upbeat-tempo song that leaves the listener, if not happy or satisfied, at least a little less prone to smashing one’s hand through the glass in a frame around a picture of an ex.

attractions-bandWhat a wonderful, necessary and brilliant thing, this human endeavor called “art.” Imagine if all that pain and hostility and rage inside Costello were bottled up and unexpressed; or worse yet, imagine if it had been diverted to something destructive and hateful – like becoming a fraudulent Orange Turd bent on destroying the u.s.a. Instead, he took it and made something great with it. Blood & Chocolate is a reminder that anger isn’t bad, that it is part of our lives. It’s also a reminder that we should use our anger and do something constructive with it – like working against everything the stinky turd (whom most Americans did not vote for) and his cry-baby supporters stand for. I’ve started already.

Track Listing
“Uncomplicated”
“I Hope You’re Happy Now”
“Tokyo Storm Warning”
“Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”
“I Want You”
“Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?”
“Blue Chair”
“Battered Old Bird”
“Crimes of Paris”
“Poor Napoleon”
“Next Time Round”

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70th Favorite: Imperial Bedroom, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Imperial Bedroom. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1982, Columbia Records. Producer: Geoff Emerick.
Purchased ca. 1998.

album imperial bedroom

squirrel nutIN A NUTSHELL – The new wave/punk angry young man finds new ways to showcase his caustic wit in this collection of polished, orchestrated and highly produced numbers. The Attractions are as excellent as ever, and Costello’s voice is at its finest as he takes the first of many steps away from the music that defined his early career.
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f and g cast

One of the best TV shows in the history of TV shows was the short-lived and perfect Freaks and Geeks. I think the reason I love it so much is because it’s basically the story of me and my freshman year of high school. It was set in suburban Michigan, not too dissimilar from the rural/suburban Pennsylvania region where I grew up; in a public high school, like I attended; and took place in 1980, just about the same time I started high school.

bootsThe focus of the show is the journey undertaken by a high school junior and academic heavyweight, Lindsey Weir, as she embarks on new friendships with the “Freaks,” the kids in school who seem to be into nothing, except drinking and drugs and smoking and cars and loud rock music. These “Freaks” were a constant population in 80s suburban public schools, and every school seemed to have their own names for them: “Druggies,” “Burnouts,” “Burners.” At our school they were called “Treads,” which someone told me was because they typically wore work boots with big treads on the bottom (and usually with red laces, for some reason). Most of them (though not all) were in the lower-track classes, and at my school they were most rock shirtsoften found in the Smoking Lavatory. Their uniform consisted of old jeans, concert tee-shirts (or three-quarter sleeved jerseys), and a denim jacket or army coat.

Lindsey has a younger brother, Sam, who starts his freshman year at McKinley High School that same year. This is the character with whom I identify. I was a geek, and I had a few close friends, just like Sam. Each episode had a Sam storyline, and each one resonated with me. Stories such as liking a girl who doesn’t like you back, being scared that a tough Tread-girl will beat the shit out of you, or the utter agony and dread associated with gym class showers were seemingly lifted directly from my life. The writing on the show was excellent, the actors were brilliant, and these two things paired with the show’s setting (not to mention its IMPRESSIVE use of carefully chosen, era-specific music) made it the absolute perfect show for me.

velourA classic, cringe-inducing episode, titled “Looks and Books,” involves Sam trying to change his fortunes with girls, or, rather, one girl, Cindy Sanders, by changing up his wardrobe. He’s certain that his typical turn-of-the-decade duds – the jeans, corduroys, velour v-neck sweaters and striped t-shirts – aren’t doing enough to get Cindy to notice him. So he heads to the coolest store in the mall, to see if the awesomely fashionable staff can help him out:

Sam buys a “Parisian Night Suit”, and in one of the most free and wonderful performances I’ve seen by an actor, John Francis Daley, as Sam, imagines just what the suit will do for him. It’s not a dream sequence – the imaginings take place in his head. And as uncomfortable as it may be to glimpse what’s going on inside young Sam’s head by peeking into his bedroom, I hope every one of you, dear readers, has felt this way over something or someone at some point in your life:

And just as I hope you all felt as happy as Sam in the previous video, I hope you never have had to deal with the crushing, deflating, terror of real life stomping all over your dreams… as occurs – quite painfully – in this next clip, as Sam quickly realizes that not everyone immediately grasps the sophistication and strength of his new apparel:

I myself wasn’t the type to take big risks with my wardrobe, such as the one Sam takes with his Parisian Night Suit. I went along with the trends, to be sure, and in 4th grade maybe I’d break out something a little flashy.

In fourth grade I wasn't afraid of bold sartorial choices. (This outfit was not a punishment - I chose it. Even the shoes.)

But class photos from 6th through 10th grade demonstrate that – apart from dabbling in attempts at feathering my cowlick-ridden hair – I’d found a look and I went with it.

Collars and stripes were in! Every year! Apparently. Re: the hair, I know what you're thinking. I'm as dumbfounded as you are.

Earlier, I stated I hoped you readers never went through such an will rogersexperience as Sam did. But to be honest I hope something like this has happened to you because it means that – simultaneous-teeth-and-buttocks-clenching embarrassment aside – you went out on a limb and tried something outside your comfort zone. There are a million great quotes about the necessity and humanity of taking risks. There’s a very Will Rogers-y quote by Will Rogers that goes, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that is where the fruit is.” Perhaps my favorite is by the writer Annie Dillard who said, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” I didn’t jump off many style-related cliffs, like Sam did, but I did stumble off a few and find my hastily assembled wings fail me before I splatted on the pavement.risk

mesh shirtIn my freshman year I once wore to school a mesh t-shirt that we got for being on the basketball team – a style that was frequently worn by many boys in school. But I hadn’t noticed that even though the holes in the mesh were very tiny, on a silky white shirt they created a see-through effect that, when coupled with the shirt’s tight fit on my chubby frame, presented a strongly amusing appearance to many other kids in my class. (Apparently.) There were jokes galore at my expense that day – for several days, really. One boy called me Cheryl Tiegs for the next several weeks. I never wore the shirt to school again – even though as a bit of proof that I had in fact made the Freshman basketball team, it was a memento of one of my proudest achievements to that point in my life.

supermanBut this is a far different experience than Sam had. I had simply overlooked some information about a common garment. Sam made a conscious decision to take the bold action to reveal, through a wardrobe change, his secret identity as Super Hip, Super Desirable Young Man. The feelings he showed in his awkward mirror dance are joyful, human expressions of self worth, and he hoped to demonstrate to his classmates his worth as a suave, sophisticated, modern young man of style. He had a lot more invested in his decision to wear a Parisian Night Suit than I did in my mesh shirt. I had my pride on display; Sam displayed a previously concealed Self. (Not to mention a really goofy-looking, powder blue jumpsuit.)

When it comes to a musician’s “wardrobe” of styles, Elvis Costello is well-known today for being a Halloween-Costume type of performer, brodskyhaving released albums of multiple styles over the past 40(ish) years. Country-folk, New Orleans jazz, classical, jazz/pop, lush 60s-style pop, string quartet with voice … these are some of the styles Elvis has worked in over the years, and there are other records in the discography that are not really in any category. But in the early 80s, Elvis was very much a poster boy for the punk/new wave sound that the UK had been exporting to the US by way of independent record stores, college radio and videos like the ones being shown on that new channel, MTV.

elvis iconBecause of his iconic look, featured on the cover of his debut album, My Aim Is True, and consisting of short hair, big, black spectacles, an ill-fitting suit and pigeon-toed stance, I recognized Elvis Costello before I’d ever heard a song of his. I’ve written before about my first introduction to punk rock as a middle schooler, via MAD Magazine, but the basic story is that it scared the shit out of me. And Elvis was British and looked weird – not nearly as normal as other rock performers of the 70s – so I just assumed he was a scary punk rocker. To an 11 year old buying Village People cassettes, it was a commonsense deduction.

village people At some point in 8th or 9th grade I was watching a dumb movie on TV called Americathon, in which the US president holds a telethon to raise money to keep America from being sold to Native Americans. A performer called “The Earl of Manchester” sings a song on the telethon, and I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a good song.” It was Elvis Costello, in his film debut, playing the song “Crawling to the USA.” This piqued my interest, and I began to flip through his records at record stores and department stores, wondering if I should buy. As I’ve written before, I worried what my folks would think of the smart-assed Brit, so I decided to go with AC/DC and REO Speedwagon instead.

spinningElvis became a guy whose songs I heard on the radio, and whose videos I watched on MTV. I liked some songs, didn’t think much about him, and went on my merry way. I did see him and The Attractions live in Philadelphia in 1986 as part of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour, in which audience members spun a gargantuan carnival wheel with song titles stamped on it, and the band played whatever came up. It remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. But still, I didn’t rush out and buy his records.

I really became a fan in the mid 90s, when I bought the Rykodiscbest of release The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions – one of at least 10 “Best of” records that Elvis has released over the years. Then I started buying – and listening constantly – to his records. Imperial Bedroom is a record that I bought after I’d thoroughly digested his first five albums: My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!, and Trust.
elvis snl2

Imperial Bedroom is the Parisian Night Suit of Elvis’s early records. This is the record on which he took a chance and revealed his secret identity as crooner and front man for an orchestral pop outfit. Some people were taken aback – unsure what to make of this fellow who they thought they’d had pegged. Any fan who’d gotten used to aggressive, guitar-and-organ driven numbers, with lyrics spat derisively into the mic, was in for a big surprise upon hearing the 15 tracks on this new record. Unlike Sam’s Parisian Night Suit, however, most people understood the strength and sophistication of Costello’s new style.

The record opens with the subtle, splendid “Beyond Belief,” a very mellow opener, especially after five previous (mostly) rockin’ album openers.

This is another song that would be high up in my Championship Vinyl Commemorative Top Five List of Side One Track Ones. I love how it opens with elvis attract 11a faint vocalization while drummer Pete Thomas’s high-hat jangles, and Bruce Thomas (no relation) strikes a declarative single bass note. Elvis sings, softly and closely, an incredibly wide-ranging melody, with more words-per-measure than some folks put into an entire verse. The song builds gradually, with Pete double-timing the bass drum at about 48 seconds, and keyboardist Steve Nieve holding a note that turns into a swirling, calliope-esque background for the rest of the song. Meanwhile, Bruce Thomas has been striking single bass notes, and Pete Thomas is frantically pounding, and the whole thing escalates to a gunshot sound at 1:09. So we’re just over a minute into the song, and already it’s clear that this record is not going to be made up of simple verse-chorus-verse-bridge rock songs, and straightforward rock band sounds. The entire song sounds like something different, a pop song from another world. Also, the song’s lyrics are particularly clever and full of allusions and puns, and seem to describe a character drunkenly meeting a woman at a bar and leaving with her – and regretting it as it happens.

elvis guitar

Elvis’s lyrics are generally either loved or hated because of their slick (too slick?) wordplay – but I’m a guy who appreciates the puns and wit The next song, “Tears Before Bedtime,” describes one side of a deteriorating relationship in clear, direct language, and a phrase that anyone who’s argued with a partner can understand: “How wrong can I be before I am right?”

There’s so much I like about this song. It really shows off the band’s abilities. In Costello’s recent autobiography, he continually (and hyperbolically) praises elvis attractionsThe Attractions as the best band ever assembled, and they truly are talented. Nieve’s beep-booping keyboard takes center stage, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear a ska-sounding rhythm chop supporting the whole thing. This is also played by the multi-talented Nieve. At about 1:48 it’s particularly clear, until Bruce Thomas’s catchy run brings the whole band back in for the chorus. I also like how Elvis’s vocals are sung in many voices, as if he’s playing different parts. It’s very much a sing-along song for me.

There are a few songs about crumbling relationships on the album, and another one that again features a rather non-Elvis arrangement is the sweet-sounding sob story “The Long Honeymoon.”

On this track, Nieve adds a gentle accordion steve nieve to accompany a samba beat, which together with Elvis’s vibrato gives the song the feel of a sleazy 60s lounge-singer. Which – given the tale of a husband stepping out on his wife – fits perfectly! Elvis isn’t well-known as a guitarist, but he plays a great solo on this song that fits in tone and style. One gets the sense Mr. Costello was having difficulties at home while he was writing Imperial Bedroom – a fact he confirmed in his book.

The discord in his personal life is likely the source of a song in which he asks for forgiveness: “Human Hands.”

It’s a quick, bouncy piano-based number with some elvis attractions2catchy horns arranged by the album’s producer (and engineer on some of the best Beatles albums), Geoff Emerick. I love Elvis’s vocals on this one, which is once again a wide-ranging melody. It was the presence of Emerick as producer that helped guide Costello to stitch together this Parisian Night Suit of an album. Emerick’s work on albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road is legendary, and according to his book (and Costello’s book) he played a significant role in coaxing Costello to trust himself and take some stylistic risks. It is in this risk-taking spirit that comes the lushly orchestrated “…And In Every Home.” The score for the orchestra was written by pianist Nieve, who attended London’s Royal College of Music. The song seems to be another one about an unhappy home

Emerick’s touch is also heard in the harpsichord backing and flanging vocals in the lovely lament about teenage love, (and the lack of information that can make it so weird and challenging) “You Little Fool.”

There are a few “classic”-sounding Costello songs on the album. elvis attractions concertThe Loved Ones” would have fit nicely on an earlier record and features a call-and-response chorus that has Mr. Emerick’s fingerprints all over it. And “Little Savage” sounds like a lost track from his 60s-themed album Get Happy! But most sound like nothing he’d done before. Take “Pidgin English,” for example, with its orchestration, multiple voices and distorted drums. This is the second song on the album to feature the words “PS I Love You” at the end, this time sounding like an epitaph – perhaps another clue to the status of Costello’s love life when the songs were written.

Besides the opening track, my favorite song on the album is “Man Out of Time.”

The song opens and closes with snippets of earlier versions of the song, when it was a raucous rave-up, but as recorded for Imperial Bedroom, it’s a grandly sweeping epic. It features wonderful keyboard work from Nieve – organs and pianos adding shading behind the verses. Elvis’s singing is again evocative and personal-sounding. I’m not sure what the lyrics are about – many have suggested it harkens to an old British political scandal. Whatever they mean, the lyrics make for excellent poetry.

elvis attractions 2So there you have it – Elvis Costello’s Parisian Night Suit. He boldly put it on and strode through the high school halls of 80s New Wave and dared the others to laugh. I’d like to think that Sam bought Imperial Bedroom in his junior year at McKinley High and was inspired to go out on some other limbs. Maybe the Parisian Night Suit wasn’t right for him, but I hope he kept trying to get the right presentation for all of his Secret Identities. Elvis Costello has made a career of it, and this first secret identity on Imperial Bedroom may have been his best.

TRACK LISTING
Beyond Belief
Tears Before Bedtime
Shabby Doll
The Long Honeymoon
Man Out of Time
Almost Blue
…And in Every Home
The Loved Ones
Human Hands
Kid About It
Little Savage
Boy with a Problem
Pidgin English
You Little Fool
Town Cryer

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