You know the show is over when you hear the children’s song playing on the PA. Elvis Costello and the Imposters have taken their bows and hustled offstage; the houselights have gone up; you’re encouraged to egress likewise by the sweet voice of Mandy Miller filling the room: it’s her 1956 novelty tune, produced by Beatles maestro George Martin, about a pachyderm ankling its big-top gig to rejoin the herd storming through the jungles of Hindustan. The chorus goes:
Nellie the elephant packed her trunk
And said goodbye to the circus
Off she rode with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump…
In the fall of 2016, in the possible twilight of American democracy, as the world may or may not be dancing on the lip of the abyss, all roads lead here: accidents will happen, to be sure, but Costello knows exactly what he’s doing when he links his customary show-closer, a storming plea for comity in the form of “peace, love, and understanding,” with a warbled valediction offering up the comic image of the symbol of the GOP galumphing into the distance, its clumsy steps conjured onomatopoetically with the last name of Donald Trump.
To be clear: what you’ve just seen is not a political show. I’m a little hard-pressed, in fact, to tell you what it is. Costello is touring behind nothing – he’s released no new album since 2013, hasn’t made a record with the Imposters since 2010, and isn’t even plugging a reissue. Instead he’s built for us a sort of escape through time, backwards to the early eighties, structuring the setlists of this current outing around 1982’s Imperial Bedroom and, by choosing thematically-related songs, shining a flashlight into various equally plush, equally squalid boudoirs that adjoin it. In theory it’s a night of love songs; in practice it’s a portrait of the artist as a young man: Costello on that record was at the height of his powers, and used them to immortalize the lowest of his impulses. Imperial Bedroom, and this tour showcasing it, is about seedy assignations and mismatched love affairs barely qualifying as trysts; the tracks are packed with string sections and horn parts and the occasional francophilic accordion – live, the four Imposters and a flotilla of synth parts are aided and abetted by two newly-hired backing singers to flesh out the sound – but the lush sonics serve solely to underline the album’s sad depiction of isolation and solitude and bereftness. Sure, the man who made Armed Forces a few years earlier, under its original title Emotional Fascism, and who would a year later sneak anti-Thatcher anthems like “Shipbuilding” onto the radio-friendly Punch The Clock, is well aware that the personal is always political: the cynical flesh-pressing of legislators and the backroom wheel-greasing of the machine are invariably paralleled by the coldness and calculation and naked need that all-too-often govern our sex lives. But at this very weird moment in world history, with talk of this godawful presidential election on everyone’s lips, it’s odd that Costello has raided his catalogue for the songs that, arguably, are least suited for discussing the issues of the day.
In this he finds himself in a similar predicament to the only other classic-rock artist of his caliber still touring as anything more than a nostalgia act: Bruce Springsteen.* Springsteen took some knocks this year for remaining surprisingly mum on the American political situation, and part of the problem was that the tour he’d undertaken – which in this case actually was keyed to a reissue, lavish and filled with outtakes and bonus tracks, of 1980’s The River – hamstrung him similarly in terms of what he could use his music to say. He’d committed himself to playing the massive double album in its entirety each night, and as a result he struggled to find a way to forge setlists into a discussion of current events: it’s hard to talk about the country’s rightward lurch in the vocabulary of thirty-year-old songs that gleefully reference Kojak. Springsteen, too, was showcasing one of his most personal records in this most impersonal of years, and even in the tour’s latter legs, when the River format was more or less discarded, he seems to have decided to embrace the album’s party-hearty atmosphere rather than its anxiety-about-the-future undercurrents, doing shows of record-breaking length in stadiums and featuring two-hour stretches where he would play nothing from post-1974. It’s a digression to say so, but I suspect Springsteen found himself in a bit of a pickle during this election season’s earliest phases: in broken-clock fashion, Trump had started off by positioning himself not unreasonably as the voice of a large segment of working-class men who feel left behind by the trade agreements that, at least until Bernie Sanders gave her a hard shove to the left, Hillary Clinton supported and was identified with; those people have been the subjects of and audience for Springsteen songs dating back at least to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It’s hard to remember this far back, but there was a time when it still seemed like the campaign might be about issues, and repudiating Trump probably felt less important, back then, than tacitly conceding that in this at least the man has a point, and that some of the disquiet feeding his campaign stems from legitimate, and underaddressed, grievances. By the time Trump was mocking a disabled reporter and saying certain people can’t do their jobs because of their race and insulting the families of fallen servicemen and refusing to apologize for naming the specific body parts he was on record as liking to grab women by, Springsteen was performing to soccer fields packed with roaring fans in Europe, which has its own boorish and racist strongmen to deal with. No wonder he, like Costello, chose to slip into yesterday – though his escape through time took him not to the Reaganite ’80s but to the early-’70s halcyon days when he was playing sweaty shows to beer-soaked barrooms pushing The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.
Now, Costello’s disgust with Trump has been open – his current project is A Face In The Crowd, an entire Broadway musical about demagoguery – and yet it has seemed possible that this man who’s never been much for political shades of gray is sensitive to the same things I’m positing gave Springsteen pause. Each night these Imperial Bedroom shows kick off, after all, with the circa-1982 outtake “The Town Where Time Stood Still,” which suggests that loveless and misery-inducing bedhopping is only encouraged by the crippling unemployment that right-wing governments seem never to mind so long as belts are being tightened and upper-bracket tax rates are low. The trappings of the song are chipper; the backing singers yelpy and histrionic; the lyrics utterly without hope: it’s a dance number, with sourness at its core.
Now every girl I see looks so much prettier to me
My faithfulness has faded
And their looks are sharp as daggers and the conversation heated
Since the boys have all been laid off and are walking round defeated
In the town where time stood still…
But with notable exceptions, this is as far as the shows’ politics have gone – indeed, it’s about as far as it’s possible to take a night celebrating Imperial Bedroom in the direction of social commentary. A few of the detours have provided Costello with a moment to weigh in: one of the “Other Chambers,” for instance, is “You’ll Never Be A Man,” from 1981’s Trust, which anticipates some of the gutwrenching emasculation the characters on Imperial Bedroom will be feeling; Costello has been introducing it by musing that when he wrote it
I thought I was a man, but I never really was. I’m still not. I’m still working on that one… I’ve spent a whole lifetime trying to be a man, and you just have to look in the news headlines to find out how difficult that is…
It’s clear enough, even without context, what sorts of people he’s talking about. Meanwhile, the current iteration of “Man Out Of Time,” originally written about a politician disgraced in a 1960s British sex scandal, has seemed vaguely to want to envision a post-election Trump, ruined by rejection and cast off into similarly scurrilous exile. Costello has reconfigured the song’s “tuppenny, ha’penny millionaire” very pointedly into a “billionaire,” and he seems more sickened than ever by the way this fellow has a “tight grip on the short hairs of the public imagination”; he’s also thrown in a tweak to the final verse, in that several shows have found him adding words to the rhymed lines in an already beautiful couplet:
Somebody’s creeping in the kitchen
There’s a reputation to be made – and lost
Who’s nerves are always on a knife’s edge?
Who’s up late polishing the blade – and at what cost?
The last four words don’t quite fit with the song’s scansion – early shows on the tour assigned them to the backing singers, who tried mightily but couldn’t get them to fit; later shows saw Costello dropping them, though he seemed loath to give them up: at the tour’s very end he began cramming them into the tiny space the music affords, like he’s desperate to get the question out, euphony be damned. “At what cost do we do all this?” is, after all, the underlying question of the day, and of Imperial Bedroom likewise: what do we lose when we villainize our opponents; what do we give up when we cheapen our politics and undermine our democracy; what’s the price we pay, to use a phrase from The River, when we pursue partners for pleasure rather than love or break each other’s hearts because we hate ourselves? If the personal is always political, I suppose the vector can be reversed as well without it being any less true. And yet despite all this, Costello has been stymied just as Springsteen was by the task of talking about now using songs from then: offering the after-dinner mint of “Nellie The Elephant” feels, in a way, like an admission that cuing up a sixty-year-old kids’ singalong is the best he can do to address the, uh, elephant in the room.
But why, we have to ask, was this Costello’s fall 2016 tour in the first place? Why have his dark thoughts on what’s afoot had to be slipped in among glimmering pop songs from yesteryear like so many mickey finns dropped in a glass of champagne? He doesn’t have a River-esque box set to promote, after all. He could have played anything he liked: “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” could just as easily have been “Armed Forces and Other Military Metaphors,” or “Get Happy!! and Other Deeply Ironic Encouragements To Offer People In A Season Of Absolute Despair.” For the first few shows of the tour, which bowed two weeks ago in Atlantic City and sprinted through New England and upstate New York before heading for the heartland, Costello himself seemed frustrated with what was going on. It might be in my head – this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve overread some little thing in the EC universe – but at first he seemed like a guest at his own party: he was decidedly the least rehearsed player on the stage, to the point where his sound people seemed unaware when his solos were coming and thus neglected to adjust the guitar amplification for them. The hauled-from-deep-storage songs from Imperial Bedroom seemed to throw him: on the magnificent “The Loved Ones,” Costello struggled to find the right register for the chorus’s vocal line; on “Town Cryer” he fought gently and uselessly against a smidge-too-fast tempo, unslowable because even his drummer was playing to a pretaped metronome. His plight was perhaps most apparent on “…And In Every Home.” This is nobody’s favorite Imperial Bedroom track: a jet-black song of absolute grimness, it received an improbable polish on record such that it sounds faintly like “Penny Lane,” thanks to the album’s producer being that other Beatles wunderkind, Geoff Emerick. It’s never been comfortable in live settings – its gorgeous arrangement has to be sloughed off to prerecorded synthesizers; its precisely layered vocals force Costello, singing alone rather than harmonizing with a multitracked version of himself, to adjust rhythms on the fly. Costello does this superbly, of course – anyone who’s ever heard him sing “Oliver’s Army” live knows he can effortlessly recast the rush of syllables of “Have you got yourself an occupation?” in order to elide the overlap between verse and chorus. But resuscitating “…And In Every Home” for this tour, Costello seemed not to know where to put the emphases in its refrain:
And in every home there will be lots of time
I will be all yours, you might have been admired
And in every home there will be lots of time
They say they’re very sorry but you are not desired
Oh heaven preserve us
Oh heaven preserve us
Oh heaven preserve us
Because they don’t deserve us…
Reworking the rhythm made it necessary to hit the first “lots of time” harder than he does on record, spacing out the words and giving the phrase as much rhythmic weight as “not desired” despite that being a far more significant piece of the idea. Meanwhile, the backing singers are providing a bed for the vocal to fall onto when it sounds more like Costello wants to kick the speaker of his song disdainfully out the door, and the synths feel like an orchestra swirling all around, the violinists madly sawing away at strings like this is a philharmonic recital rather than a shamefaced confession. It’s true on record, and even more so here: you get the sense that Costello has been trapped by his own music, and the effect, curiously enough, is less like Imperial Bedroom than a much-less-loved later record, Goodbye Cruel World. On that 1984 misfire – Costello himself famously opened his liner notes to its reissue by proclaiming “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album” – a sadsack series of self-pitying songs were rendered almost unlistenable by overproduction that left a lachrymose Costello wincing beneath an obnoxious pop superstructure. There, and to a lesser extent here, he sounded like a figure in a Michael Haneke film, a meek man who just wants to hole up in his house and be left alone but who’s under harassing attack from a clattering bunch of gleeful noisemakers bent on doing him violence. Make no mistake: the shows have been a lot of fun, but that in its earliest dates “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” had me thinking along these lines was a sign that something at the tour’s heart wasn’t quite right.
How did we get here? It’s a question we’ve all been asking, in bigger and more philosophical senses, but it’s fitting to ask it of this tour as well. Weirdly enough, I suspect the answer might lie in the most recent Imposters outing, a British jaunt from this past July that kicked off on the day the Chilcot Report dropped, and continued through the selection of Theresa May as England’s new Conservative leader and PM. Perceptibly pissed, Costello packed his sets with angry late-’70s numbers that seethed with rage: a bristling “Big Tears,” a jittery “Moods For Moderns,” an even-bitterer-than-usual “Green Shirt.” He would eventually add “Tramp The Dirt Down,” clearly lamenting that he’d lived long enough to witness the rise of a Prime Minister likely to be every bit as awful as the predecessor whose funeral he liplickingly anticipated in that 1989 dirge. One wonders, indeed, what the tuxedoed toffs he played for at a midsummer garden party in Henley thought of encore “Night Rally,” with its sneeringly antifascist stance and its suggestions that Naziism and genocide are a heartbeat away from Brexit-ish nationalism and xenophobia. All the while, the Imposters proved the perfect backing band for so much fury: Pete Thomas’s drums and Davey Faraghar’s bass, not to mention Steve Nieve’s deceptively-ornate keyboard lines, provide just the right kind of trampoline to send an enraged lead singer into the stratosphere – just as two of the three did when they were Attractions, backing an even angrier Costello in his confrontational early days on the rock scene. This, frankly, was exactly the sort of thing we needed over here in the States four months later. And yet, effective as the Imposters are when they serve as Costello’s bludgeon, you can’t make a career out of bludgeoning. The British shows underlined the fact that the Imposters are best deployed in desperate times, but one hopes – perhaps in vain – that the desperate times ahead are relatively few, and in that case what’s a band to do? Their leader’s recent recording and touring history makes it clear enough: Costello barely needs the Imposters, and only takes them out for a spin on special occasions.** He seems perfectly content doing solo shows; he seems to have no desire to record anything else; though 2016 has proved a purple patch, songwriting-wise, with twenty new songs for A Face In The Crowd along with an unspecified number of new tunes for an unspecified number of musicals he’s writing with Burt Bacharach, not to mention the handful of new tunes he’s been debuting, like “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now” and “What Is It I Need That I Don’t Already Have?” that suggest he’s got at least the beginnings of a great singer/songwriter record stored away in the cupboard, none of this material seems in any way earmarked for the Imposters. Indeed, in the case of the Broadway material, it seems almost specifically unsuited to their sometimes-slinky, often-muscular, always-rock-oriented approach. “Will you still love a man out of time?” Costello asked on Imperial Bedroom, playing with the idea that the man in question has his heyday in the rearview and also that time is the thing he’s run out of. Thirtysome years later, I imagine his bandmates have been feeling a bit out of time themselves, and so they came up with a plan.
The plan – and I should make clear that I’m speculating, basing this on nothing save impressions gleaned from the shows – was to reel Costello back in. The Imposters wanted to demonstrate their validity as an ongoing touring act, a band that could go out on extended stints, packing bigger venues in larger markets than Costello’s been playing on his solo tour – and they seem to have sweetened the proposition by coming up with the very good idea to market the dates with a superb hook: a set built around many fans’ favorite Costello album. Yes, my sentence structure in earlier graphs suggested it was Costello who was the architect of these sets, but there’s evidence that that’s an inaccurate representation of what really went on. His comments from the stage – not to mention his discernible latecomer-to-the-process status in those early performances – make it clear that Nieve and Faraghar, in particular, hatched much of what we heard every night: Nieve is credited again and again with the musical arrangements – and not just of “Town Cryer,” for instance, where he was the arranger on the original recording – while Faraghar gets repeated shout-outs for vocal arrangements, and he’s obviously worked hard with Kitten Kuroi and YahZarah, the new backing vocalists.*** The dates were scheduled in a tight window before Thanksgiving, opening night coming just days after the conclusion of Costello’s fall solo run, and you sense that rehearsal time with Costello in the flesh was limited – hence his underpreparedness out of the gate. All indications are that this tour was put together in, well, not to say haphazard fashion, but certainly piecemeal, with Nieve and Faraghar working separately, looping Thomas in and eventually adding their lead singer in modular fashion. Costello’s role seems to have been performed entirely from afar – his chief contribution has been artwork, projected onto a scrim and sold in a rather pretty paperbound book at the merch stand, which reimagines the covers of his various albums in the style of Barney Bubbles’s famous Imperial Bedroom cover painting, “Snake Charmer and Reclining Octopus.”**** Musically speaking, Costello himself was present for a few rehearsals in September in Los Angeles, and then seems to have crammed like a college kid prior to finals with a couple of days in New York between his Atlanta solo finale and his Atlantic City Imperial Bedroom unveiling. It doesn’t seem like the most organic way to build a live show – and, indeed, it resulted in the disconnect described above. But if we see it for what it seems to have been – a pitch to the boss, a request for additional responsibilities in the organization, a business plan for moving forward with renewed vigor, since after all they could do this with every one of the albums Costello defaced for the tour’s artwork, supplying the band with exciting touring fodder for years to come – it’s hard to account it anything less than a rousing success.
After all, working on their own Nieve and Faraghar came up with the tour’s highlight: a recasting of “Tears Before Bedtime” that strips the jaunty number to its agonized bare bones. The original tune is a glass-half-empty version of the Other Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds,” eschewing that song’s contrapositive pleas – “We can’t build our dreams on suspicious minds…” – and doubling-down on the negative instead:
I don’t want to talk
I don’t want to fight
How wrong can I be, before I’m right?
That’s actually the sweetest part of the song, believe it or not. This new arrangement is played with stark soul stylings, relying on piano and slashing guitar and darkened further by spot-on-sinister cooing from Kuroi and YahZarah; it sounds more than ever like a precursor to the self-loathing nineties late-night-lust anthems of the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli:
Either you can leave the past behind
Or give me something to disconnect my mind
I sleep with my fists clenched tight
When I don’t lie awake all night
I guess time gave up the ghost too late
And the balance of our love, so soon turns to hate…
These were always the words; they just never sounded like this before. Indeed – and I hope you’ll forgive the digression – the saga of this song dates back to 1981, when Costello offered it almost shyly to country legend Billy Sherrill during the Nashville recording sessions that yielded Almost Blue. You can watch the moment he decided to do this, via documentary footage aired on the South Bank Show, during a poolside strategy meeting with the other Attractions. It’s interesting to note that “Tears Before Bedtime” was the “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” of its day – another attempt to re-engage the wandering attentions of a bored supervisor. Sherrill, you see, had been assigned unenthusiastically to the limeys-cut-some-country-tunes sessions by some Columbia Records exec, and before long checked out completely; Costello thought maybe bringing in some original material would convince the producer that this was more than a vanity project. He thought wrong; the Nashville arrangement is awful in large part because the song wasn’t quite finished at that point; “Tears Before Bedtime” wouldn’t be revived until the band convened in London with Emerick months later, when it would be recast as a kind of goofy boogaloo. Though given new life in 2006 with a fine Allen Toussaint arrangement that popped up on the River In Reverse tour, “Tears” was never really right until now – as Costello has admitted each night, introducing the Nieve/Faraghar rework with a brief spiel:
The truth of it was, I was twenty-six. And I was maybe a couple of years ahead of some of you who were listening to us then, in the romantic misery-stakes… So I think we hid some of the words behind the music. When I wrote some of these songs, I thought we were making a bright summer pop record, like the Monkees. And I pushed the meaning, and the thing that was in my heart, a little bit farther away, with brightening up some of the music to hide what I really felt. But we’re gonna go down deep now, okay? We’re among friends…*****
It’s a startling admission, not only that the beloved gleam of Imperial Bedroom is in a way a false front but also that sometimes it’s your band, in this case in the form of Nieve and Faraghar operating thirty-five years after the fact, who help you discover what your songs even are. This had to be eye-opening for Costello – yes, his band was outlining what the years ahead for the Imposters as a touring outfit might be, but more importantly they were making a solid case for their leader’s artistic need for them.
The result was that Costello, despite that initial sense of being indifferently-committed, grew increasingly engaged with the tour as it went along. Probably he would have anyway – he’s a consummate professional, after all. But those hiccups with “The Loved Ones” and “Town Cryer” were fixed pretty quick; “…And In Every Home” was relieved of all of its issues save the ones that were there all along and are essential to its schizophrenia as an Emerick production of a Nieve arrangement of a Costello account of self-hatred. Perhaps best of all has been “Pidgin English,” slotted as a set-closer, wherein Costello lobs his reproaches with uncharacteristic good humor, mocking himself for verbally overadorning his never-quite-sincere love songs:
Silence is golden
Money talks diamonds and ermine
There’s a word in Spanish, Italian, and German
Sign language, Morse code, semaphore and gibberish
Have you forgotten how to say it
In your pidgin English?
This tune has always been great, a perverse half-love song where the object of the singer’s love is verbosity itself; now it rumbles and soars, crunching like the blades in an abattoir but also, somehow and somewhat improbably, caressing at the same time. Meanwhile, the band discarded the songs that, for whatever reason, weren’t working in the early dates – it’s actually a bit of a bummer that some of the most appealing “Other Chambers,” including “You Tripped At Every Step” and “Party Girl,” fell by the wayside, along with the rarity “Seconds Of Pleasure” which never quite caught fire – and Costello started taking ownership of the tour, calling songs that he could direct rather than simply settle into. No longer was he the man at the center of a Goodbye Cruel World-esque carnival; like Nellie he packed his trunk and said farewell and left the circus behind, going back to doing what he does best. In a hot-pink fedora, and playing an unusual number of fiery guitar solos, he was leading this band once again rather than submitting to their directions, and the results were thrilling: Ann Arbor found the Imposters charging back into the southern swamps with their mighty version of Lee Dorsey’s “On Your Way Down”; by DC, Costello was bandleading with glee, gesturing expertly to modulate the sensitive backing vocals on “This House Is Empty Now.” But the real sign of Costello’s enthusiasm for the tour has, ironically, been his revival of some newer numbers, unrecorded things that heretofore he’s always played unaccompanied on his solo dates.
It didn’t happen every night, but if you caught Costello in the right mood your “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” show would conclude with an encore where he strode out, a ridiculous purple top hat on his head, and sat down at the piano, and called out: “Is it too late to announce my candidacy?” This has, for months now, been the way he’s introduced “Blood & Hot Sauce,” a silly but sensational satire from A Face In The Crowd where the title character wins over a crowd, in “Make America Great Again” fashion, with a meaningless catchphrase and craven appeals to their baser natures. That the song rests on a chord progression lifted from Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” makes it all the more cynical, and wonderful. We’re back in the land of politics now, of course, spewed out with reprehensible false promises sugarcoated with a stupid refrain:
If you’re tired of the lies
Of politicians and of preachers
You can put your trust in me
Help me be your brother’s keeper
If you pay too many taxes,
Think salvation should be cheaper
Just say, “blood and hot sauce!”
This usually got the crowd laughing, and we would follow happily as Costello finished it and then led us into the title song from his new musical – another tune sung, with surprising sympathy from its author built in, from the perspective of a Trumpian character. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that these 2016 songs are the first in the set that date from post-1983 – and, for our purposes here, they’re also the most problematic, in that the unquestionable success of this stretch of the show undermines what the Imposters were trying to achieve, assuming I’ve assessed their goals correctly. Though a full-band version of “A Face In The Crowd” was played in the encores during the July English tour, the contributions of Nieve, Thomas, and Faraghar never really seemed to elevate the song, and now it’s back to being a Costello solo number, with just some minor organ work from Nieve to thicken up the sound. If the argument being made was that the Imposters have an essential role in Costello’s music going forward, A Face In The Crowd – either italicized or in quotation marks – seemed to be taking that argument out at the knees.
But the Imposters came back swinging with the last number in this occasional encore of new music: “American Mirror,” possibly the best of Costello’s new songs, though one that had never received an Imposters treatment prior to this past week, proved the ultimate barnburner – a curtain call for the musical and for this vile political season alike. Now, “American Mirror” is a doozy. Titled after a “scandal rag” but clearly playing on the reverberative power of the title phrase, it’s sung, Costello tells us, by “the people,” who rise up to rebuke the demagogue – how this is going to work onstage is a problem for the musical’s book writer, Sarah Ruhl, to deal with. It’ll be interesting to see how she handles it. For now let’s just call it a cry against politics, a reminder that yes we can, collectively, but that mostly we don’t – still, though we might as a group be no more than our lowest common denominator, we can also be better, together, than we’ll ever be on our own:
There’s a smear and there’s a crack
Words you cannot take back
And we’re all in this week’s American Mirror
There’s a gift and there’s a deal
Much too lifelike to feel
And we’re all in, we’re all in this thing together
Every working hand, every woman and man, every sister and brother
And we’re all in, there’s more than enough of this wealth to share
And you couldn’t see it any clearer
In this American mirror…
Debuted on solo piano back in April, the song morphed over the summer into a song Costello would sing with the Lovell sisters from Larkin Poe providing sweet vocal touches here and there. Now it’s something else entirely: though the Imposters seemed not to know what to do with it when it made its “Other Chambers” debut in Akron – you got the sense Thomas hadn’t even heard it before, from the shrug he gave before keeping very rudimentary time that night – by the time it reappeared in DC a week later the band had taken it apart and reassembled it to their own specifications. Faraghar and Thomas were suddenly providing a push-and-pull that gave the song an almost oceanic feel, while Nieve’s organ cheekily played with the song’s essential Americanness by evoking in its changes both “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Kuroi and YahZarah, meanwhile, filled in the cracks with breathy vocals straight out of the Curtis Mayfield playbook, harking back lovingly to Costello’s earliest days as a fan of what he always calls Tamla/Motown – suffice it to say that the song has never sounded better. There’s a genuine case to be made that this piece of music, so clearly intended to be theatrical and stage-y, is suited beautifully to a rock show. Costello even called it, on the tour’s closing night, “rock and roll music,” which is a label I suspect he never would have given it prior to the Imposters making it their own. The rendition was nothing less than a triumph: “American Mirror” was now everything great that it had been when Costello was playing it on his own, but it was also a hundred other, possibly even greater things that the Imposters found in it and brought to life. Nieve, Faraghar, and Thomas’s reminder that Costello needs them, or any rate that he benefits greatly from their contributions, was indisputable.
But that entire final show of “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” was a fascinating marvel. Things had bent back east again with a tour-concluding weekend in the New York area, and the tour was capped with a two-night stand at the Beacon on the Upper West Side. “Kid About It,” written the day after John Lennon’s assassination, was more eerily beautiful than usual here, played a few blocks from where that awful thing happened; “King Horse,” a late-in-the-tour addition to the setlist, stormed and snorted – its sneering depiction of “the cult of the stallion with the medallion,” as Costello once put it, hit harder than ever a short cab ride up Broadway from Trump Tower. It was the night before election day, and in celebration, if that’s the word for it, Costello opened the set by playing “Night Rally” for the first time since July. The atmosphere was that of the last party before the end of the world. With a devilish grin Costello tossed out Groucho Marx quotes – “Whatever it is, I’m against it” – and chuckled at the mess Americans have gotten themselves into. At the end of the night he told us:
I’ve enjoyed spending this Christmas Eve with you! Hope you get whatever you wish for tomorrow in your stocking – or, whatever you deserve…
You couldn’t help thinking that a couple hours south, Springsteen was playing a Philadelphia rally for Clinton, having overcome his reticence at last and voiced full-throated support for her. His speech to the assembly there featured language that unintentionally echoes “American Mirror”: “The choice tomorrow,” Springsteen declared, “couldn’t be any clearer.” By contrast, Costello’s final take on the election proved less poetic than the Boss’s elegiac performance of “Long Walk Home”: he sat at his piano after “Blood & Hot Sauce” and muttered, disgustedly:
If you’re gonna vote for a fuckin’ orange clown, you could pick Ronald McDonald…
He’s capable of better than this, but then again we all are. Did I say that in 2016 all roads lead to a children’s song? I was wrong – all roads, I’m sad to report, lead right here, to embitterment and profanity. It’ll be good to put this campaign behind us.
But then Costello played “American Mirror,” and it sounded beautiful, and it sounded reassuring: “We’re all in this thing together…” he reminded us, and lord knows we needed the reminding. The Imposters, playing perfectly all around him, could have sung the same thing – it, that the four men onstage were an indivisible musical unit, was the message they hoped to convey with the entire tour – and we in the audience could hope that, come morning, our votes would convey to the entire world, just as Kuroi and YahZarah and Ono’s beautiful, braying, stirring and soothing cries were to this room, that we feel the same.
And then, at the song’s very end, Costello struck a tiny note of uncertainty. “American Mirror” has come a long way from its world premiere in Bellingham earlier this year, and by the time it hit New York a line had crept in, unnoticed – it could have been part of the lyric for months, for all I know – to the very end of the very last verse: “You couldn’t see it any clearer,” Costello sang, as he always does – but then he added this:
The world that you fear appears much nearer…
It does. But is it nearer, or does it just appear that way? And is the emphasis on the falsity of the appearance, or on the fact that we tend to act in accordance to what we perceive – the sense that our fears are coming true, whether they are or not? You tell me. For now, we can only wait and see what tomorrow brings.
Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers tour: Twelve dates (a thirteenth, in Pittsburgh, was canceled) from 22 October 2016 through 7 November 2016, opening at the Borgata in Atlantic City, NJ and concluding at the Beacon Theatre in New York, NY.
* You’re gonna mention Bob Dylan. I’m way ahead of you, and did give the matter serious thought – but the last two years have found Dylan promoting a pair of records consisting entirely of Frank Sinatra covers – which, with respect to my favorite living Nobel laureate, has to be called nostalgia-with-an-asterisk at best.
** A case in point: the finest Imposters show of the year, at least until last week’s breathtaking “Other Chambers” show in DC, was a one-off appearance in April at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where they aided Costello in memorializing the great Allen Toussaint and in the process proved themselves, especially as filled out with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horn section, perhaps the finest second-line band ever to hail from the London suburbs. Seriously, go find a bootleg of their renditions of “I Cried My Last Tear” or “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” – the performances will knock your socks off.
*** And, credit where credit’s due, also with Ace Ono, who filled in for one night in Buffalo to cover for YahZarah’s having to jet off to Vegas for a previously-scheduled one-off gig with her usual employer, Lenny Kravitz. Ono reappeared to join in on a few numbers in the tour-closing New York stand; all three voices together sound spectacular. If Costello ever feels like taking a weekend and writing an album for them, the way he once did for Wendy James, the three women would make a pretty potent nineties-styled R&B group.
**** For what it’s worth, I think the artwork suggests Costello had a different conception for this tour than his musical arrangers did. Looking at it you sense, sometimes, that he wanted to present songs from various other albums in Imperial Bedroom-ified form, or to make a little mischief by ripping the Imperial Bedroom-ness from 1982 songs and seeing how they might have sounded on earlier or later records. The sole remaining trace of this idea, if it ever obtained at all, is in the tour’s version of “Beyond Belief.” Played beneath a projection of Costello’s reimagining of the cover of 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, the snake charmer and the reclining octopus manhandled into unholy union with Napoleon Dynamite, the song has been shorn of shimmer and is now all harshly-foregrounded guitar and stomping rhythms and ugly, “Uncomplicated” sonics – precisely what it might have sounded like had it come to Costello four years later than it did.
***** For the record, I’ve assembled this from several different versions of the song intro, drawing pieces from Boston, Ann Arbor, and New York.
Top to bottom: EC with Faraghar, Kuroi, and YahZarah in Wallingford, CT, on 5 November 2016; various Imperial Bedroom logos from the EC-curated “art book” sold during the tour.