Listen to this track by a musically ambitious Elvis Costello & The Attractions. It’s “The Long Honeymoon” as taken from their celebrated, and lushly arranged and recorded, Imperial Bedroom LP, released in 1982 and making many a list for being among the best albums released that year, and eventually in that decade, too.
By the beginning of the 1980s, when the embers of new wave were beginning to cool, Costello and his band knew that staying the course was not an option. They had already made a departure with their Get Happy!! album in 1980, coloured as it was by soul music and even with a touch of Kinks-inspired pop. Even more so, they surprised critics with 1981’s Almost Blue, recorded in Nashville as a straight-ahead album of country covers produced by an allegedly bewildered Billy Sherrill, legendary producer of American country music icons George Jones and Tammy Wynette, who suddenly found himself working with a British rock ‘n’ roll group.
It was clear that Costello and his band were unencumbered by style, and limited by nothing in terms of arrangements. And because usual producer Nick Lowe was more of a one-take producer, Geoff Emerick seemed to be the better choice to sit in the producer’s chair for Imperial Bedroom. Emerick had practically invented the art of mike placement and off the cuff experimentation in the studio not bound by the limits of studio time, as a part of the Beatles’ inner circle while recording. In this, you can understand that expectations for Costello’s record were high. And the enigmatic, possibly self-defeating, marketing tagline “Masterpiece?” summed up those expectations pretty solidly.
The final results certainly garnered praise, including comparisons to George Gershwin in terms of its lush musicality and lyrical complexity. The record was partially recorded at Beatles producer George Martin’s Air Studios. All the while ,the newest album by an actual Beatle (and future Costello songwriting partner) Paul McCartney was being made in the next studio down the hall – Tug of War, to be precise. Perhaps something of McCartney’s pop sensibilities, and his interest in non-rock pop textures rubbed off on Costello, albeit with Costello still retaining his own deft hand at writing sweet pop songs that carry a bitter aftertaste.
This possibility is certainly framed well here by “The Long Honeymoon”. This is a song about the suspicions of a young wife who is plagued by the thought one night that she may have married the wrong man, all to a tango-rhythm and Gallic accordion (thanks to Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve). The lightness of touch here makes this dark tale even darker, with the contrast between the two shades accentuating the punch of both.
It should be noted that the songs were laid down in many forms, trying different styles to see which ones carried them over the best, with attention to detail in the arrangements that were unprecedented by the group previously . This was a major departure to how the group had made albums all around. Yet, even if the band had left new wave in the dust by the time the album was completed, one of the conventions of new wave and post-punk is still in place here; the jaunty, light-as-air tune against a tense lyric that creates a lively, ironic tension.
By the following year, the band took a turn toward pure pop songs with their next two albums being forays onto North American pop charts once again, and further away from the spiky rock music they’d made at the end of the 1970s. By the middle of the decade, they were burned out as a musical unit, making one final album during the decade together , 1986’s Blood and Chocolate with Nick Lowe back in the producer’s chair. But, Imperial Bedroom would easily live up to be that hoped-for expectation of a masterpiece for the group originally suggested by the hype, and confirmed by fans and critics. And it would ensure interest in Costello well beyond his initial angry young man image, and put him on a road he travels on to this day as a stylistically unbridled artist.