KEVIN DAVIS: The prevailing reputation (and therefore most common angle of discussion) of Imperial Bedroom in Elvis Costello’s catalog is that of the eclectic, indulgent masterpiece; this was the record that, to paraphrase Costello himself, saw him and the Attractions partaking in the kind of big-budget largesse that defined the Beatles’ middle years, because when the record label’s footing the bill why not experiment with that eighty-piece orchestra you always dreamed of having your keyboardist conduct? But not unlike Sgt. Pepper, my (purely anecdotal, of course) experience has been that, while most fans tend to really like Imperial Bedroom and agree that it ranks among EC’s most creative and vital works, not many list it in their uppermost tier of personal favorites. This is certainly the case for me; I find it an extremely satisfying listen and am in awe of many of its songs, but when compiling my list of true favorites, it always lands somewhere in the 5-6 position. For one, it lacks the conceptual musical through-line that many of the albums I like better do – the relentless, youthful energy of This Year’s Model, the fireside storytelling of King of America, the late-night romantic warmth of North, all records defined by leaner musicianship and consistency of mood. I sometimes wonder if records like Imperial Bedroom, anomalously lavish works which so gregariously announce their own greatness, aren’t destined to always fall a notch short of records like the others I mentioned (though I realize that I am in a significant minority in preferring North to Imperial Bedroom), even though they register more impressively on the surface, simply because there are so many more layers to peel back to get to their essences. I would be interested in seeing some statistics on this; perhaps some liberal arts grad students can take this on as a final project.
This is, of course, not to say that there isn’t a wealth of emotional complexity to be found in the songs of Imperial Bedroom, which of course there is, perhaps no more pronouncedly than on “The Long Honeymoon,” a minor-key bossa-nova ballad which documents a young wife’s internal despair as she struggles to come to grips with her husband’s probable infidelity. This song was around at least in embryonic form during the Trust era, from which we have a lovely but partial instrumental piano demo, recorded around the same time as his covers of “Gloomy Sunday” and “Love For Sale.” What’s interesting about this recording is how much of what would become the final arrangement was already built into the DNA of Elvis’s demo, only to be disseminated piece by piece as more and more musicians were added to the fold. Steve Nieve’s dual organ and piano lines are the star of the arrangement, as they are on much of Imperial Bedroom – indeed, this record may be Nieve’s finest hour as a keyboardist, no other that I can think of giving him such an array of venues in which to showcase the incredible range of his talents. Here he gets a chance to play precisely the kind of “lead-rhythm” that Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas so nimbly demonstrated on This Year’s Model – extensive, technically elaborate “comping,” emerging from the mix and demanding attention but never falling from its functional purpose of propulsion. The most gripping examples of this in “The Long Honeymoon” occur at 1:29 and 2:59, respectively, during the section in the chorus where Elvis sings, “There’s no money-back guarantee/On future happiness” – this is a defining musical moment in EC’s catalog for me, where words, melody, and instrumentation come together in a perfect cocktail of ingredients to tap into an emotion so specific and so profound that no one individual component could have conveyed it singularly.
Producer Geoff Emerick really did a beautiful job with the “touches” on this track. In particular, there is an egg shaker (or some other form of percussive “whoosh”) that appears in the left channel at the end of every second measure during the verses – it’s one of those dumb little things that I look forward to every time I listen to the song, and soon it occurs to me that this trivial little embellishment is actually a significant rhythmic anchor, a sort of taunting “tick,” not unlike the clock that the song’s narrator no doubt can’t keep watching. Elvis turns in some of his classic “spy film” guitar playing, similar to “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” adding an air of cinematic mystery to the proceedings; likewise, Steve Nieve’s farfisa organ (or keyboard designed to imitate one) offsets his traditional piano with a mournful, exotic elegance. The final mood is a kind of bizarre, lingering tension, effectively capturing that anxiety of knowing something awful is coming, but being powerless to do anything other than sit and wait for it to happen.
JORGE FARAH: When Kevin first suggested writing about “The Long Honeymoon”, I don’t think we knew yet that Elvis would soon announce a series of US concerts with The Imposters billed as “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers”, which promises to highlight this particular album. And this is an interesting album in EC’s discography—his first real sprawling, big-budget, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink orchestral affair, a departure from the relatively bare-bones four-piece stuff that preceded it. It’s just fortuitous that we get to explore one of the album’s very best songs this week, as Elvis himself dusts off some of the deep cuts from its tracklist.
Y’know, Kevin is absolutely right about the ranking for Imperial Bedroom (or, as I’ve seen it accurately-yet-annoyingly stylized in certain circles, IbMePdErRoIoAmL—which, I mean, yeah, that’s what it says on the sleeve, but come on). I think it was the first Elvis Costello album that I ever referred to as “my favorite”, but now I wonder how much that has to do with its grand ambitions and what everybody else kept telling me I should feel. When I last put together an updated ranking of the albums about a year ago, it came in at number 5—and now I’m thinking that seems a bit too high. It’s a stunning collection of songs, but I’m not sure I like it better than Brutal Youth or Trust. Yes, the album makes a big deal out of announcing itself as a “masterpiece”—even its marketing campaign sought to imprint that descriptor into the collective consciousness, much like every press release about filmmaker Zack Snyder consciously includes the word “visionary” somewhere in its opening paragraph. “Anything repeated often enough will eventually become accepted as truth”. And yet, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Imperial Bedroom is not a masterpiece. It just seems like an album deliberately designed to be impressive—from its lush orchestral arrangements to its off-kilter zig-zaggy melodies that seemed a bit too tricky even by Elvis Costello standards—rather than the visceral gut-punch of his very best work. I do wonder if I would be as big an Elvis Costello fan if his discography consisted mostly of albums like this.
That said, “The Long Honeymoon” is absolutely one of the album’s standout tracks. And I come to this opinion after years and years of skipping over it, having forgotten the pleasures of the studio version and instead choosing to remember the awkward live performance from the Costello & Nieve box-set. I’ll elaborate, because I can imagine a lot of EC fans raising an eyebrow at this: the Costello & Nieve collection is a box-set containing several limited-edition live EPs featuring selections from Elvis’s 1996 stripped-down tour with Steve Nieve. It does contain a lot of wonderful performances, but there are a few songs here and there where Elvis and Steve sound somewhat at odds with each other. One of the versions of the song included in the set features a particularly thin and reedy performance from Elvis, while Steve hammers away at the song’s arpeggios with uncharacteristic clunkiness. So the song drags along in this labored manner for five awkward minutes. It’s really no big deal; even world-class musicians—and people who had performed together for close to 20 years at that point—are allowed to have an “off” performance. In fact, there’s a much better version of the song elsewhere in the set. But for some reason, it’s that clumsy version (from the Boston show) that I remembered most vividly. Much like “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness”, I’m struck by how different performances can cast a dramatically different light on the song’s core composition; when I re-listened to the studio version for the purpose of this blog post, I was surprised by how effortless it seemed, how relaxed the performances were, and how rich and vibrant the production sounded. It was like rediscovering an old favorite that I never even knew I loved this much.
“The Long Honeymoon” is a great example of how a song can be intense without being loud as hell. It’s a relatively quiet little bossanova-inspired number drenched in a dark, foreboding vibe, befitting its paranoid lyrics of marital discontent. The choice to go with an “exotic” arrangement pays off wonderfully, as there’s an unnerving sultriness that runs through the song’s duration. Though the song’s dynamics are pretty even throughout, it seems to build in tension as the protagonist falls further into despondency. The result is one of Elvis’s most cinematic songs, with the French horns that quietly creep in during the very end underlining its noirish tones. EC would revisit this general style (and subject matter) in Momofuku’s “Harry Worth”, leaning a little more strongly into the bossa rhythm, but falling a bit flat in comparison to what he accomplished here.