An Imperial Living Room?

By Paul Rigg

In 1982 Elvis Costello threw open the doors of the bedchamber on his classic Imperial Bedroom to reveal often sad and sometimes twisted characters adrift on the rollercoaster of passion and love.  

Now we find that the wily storyteller has spent the last 20 years developing a largely new group of characters who, it could be said, might instead be found in the living room. Turning his back on nostalgia and seemingly trading his Fender Jazzmaster and signature Gibson acoustic here for horns and strings, Costello’s Look Now, released October 12, draws on his collaborations with Carole King and Burt Bacharach to produce strong and sophisticated pop.I knew if we could make an album with the scope of ‘Imperial Bedroom’ and some of the beauty and emotion of ‘Painted From Memory,’ [1998] we would really have something,” Costello says.

This time Costello is supported by the Imposters, which helpfully includes keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, who’ve been playing with him since his punk days. However they have now been joined by Fender Precision bass player Davey Faragher, who also adds a completely distinct vocal dimension to the band. Co-produced by Costello and Sebastian Krys, the album contains 12 tracks plus Isabelle in Tears, Adieu Paris (L’Envie Des Étoiles), The Final Mrs. Curtain, and You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way on the ‘deluxe version’.

The album kicks off however with the outstanding rocker Under Lime, and the context-setting lyric:
“It’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on, when you stumble and then you’re thrown.” Costello typically plays with the title to refer to both the lime garnish for a gin and tonic, for example, and the traditional practice of throwing lime on top of a corpse. He also uses the lyric to resurrect Jimmie, a character from a song that is nine years old, but who has now grown to be more unpleasant as a guy with a reputation for harassing TV show assistants. “They told a young girl with a clipboard, Just keep him amused, Whatever you do, don't tell him your name, Whatever you think, don't let him drink". Outstanding; and with added venom in the era of #MeToo.

Next up is the piano-based Don't Look At Me, which again showcases Costello’s capacity to take the perspective of two characters in one song and then tell the story as if he is a disinterested witness. This song is one of three co-written with Bacharach, including the moving Photographs Can Lie, in which a woman stares at a photo of her father and remembers his disloyalty to her mother. “In a frame, under glass, they'll always be together, so in love, but photographs can lie.”

The song Costello wrote with Carole King 20 years ago, Burnt Sugar Is so Bitter, is another standout on the album. It tells the simple story of a woman trying to take care of her kids after her husband has walked out. Backed by strong female vocals, horns and with an infectious rhythm, it certainly lives up to its promise. Unwanted Number, on the other hand, simply rocks. A Motown groove and some lovely keyboards from Steve Nieve helps it tell the touching story of a teenager struggling over her pregnancy.

Stripping Paper
has in some ways divided critics. On the one hand it tells a fascinating story about a divorced woman who passes through contrasting emotions as she removes wallpaper: she sees gouges caused by the throes of passion, and then reveals the pencil marks of her estranged daughter’s height chart. On the other, this reviewer found the lyric too forced to work as something that anyone would want to hum along to. Much better is the beautiful Suspect My Tears, where Costello opts for soul and rhythm and blues, and adds his falsetto voice to lovely effect.

On Look Now Costello has produced a cast of dark and tortured characters that rival those of Imperial Bedroom, but are perhaps now more haggard by life. As Costello puts it, in a different context, about himself: "I wouldn't say I'm wiser or better, I'm just different, because time changes you."