Song of the Day #1,405: ‘Shabby Doll’ – Elvis Costello

Best Albums of the 80s – #2
Imperial Bedroom – Elvis Costello (1982)

The third Elvis Costello album on this list is the one that blew my mind out in a car, to quote a song from a famous album engineered by Geoff Emerick, who handled production duties on this baroque masterpiece.

Yes, Imperial Bedroom is Elvis Costello’s Sgt. Pepper, bursting with creative energy and utilizing every trick in the studio playbook. It’s an acid trip and a carnival ride and a damn fine collection of songs to boot.

I wrote a week ago about how I consider King of America my first exposure to Costello, though I believe I had already purchased Spike at that point. But those two albums aside, it was when I picked up Imperial Bedroom that I really freaked out.

King of America is a triumph of songwriting. Lyrically and musically it ranks among Costello’s very finest efforts, maybe even at the top. But Imperial Bedroom is like a death-defying trapeze act that leaves you breathless waiting to see if he’ll stick the landing. It’s almost Kanye-like in its look-at-me brashness, and it somehow never stops working.

I love every moment of this album, from the other-worldly adrenaline rush of kickoff track ‘Beyond Belief’ to the torchy ‘Almost Blue,’ the circus atmosphere of ‘And in Every Home’ to the slow string fade of ‘Town Cryer.’ It’s a journey that’s also a party.

Giving you more of what for
Always worked for me before
Now I’m a shabby doll
What’s going on behind the green elevator door
With just a shabby doll

[Chorus:]
There’s a hit man facing
A compromising situation
With just a shabby doll
And a very neat line in character assassination
She’s just a shabby doll

She’s just a shabby doll
She’s putting him off and putting you on
She’s just the shabby doll
You’re swearing upon you know in your heart
She’s gone you know in your heart
She’s just a shabby doll

There’s a girl in this dress
There’s always a girl in distress
She’s just a shabby doll
She’s so sure she’s self-possessed
Then again she’s half undressed
She’s just a shabby doll

The boy that I used to be
Showed no sign of sympathy
For just a shabby doll
I have betrayed you and me
And paid for my own bribery
With just a shabby doll

[Chorus]

He’s the tired toy that everyone enjoyed
He wants to be a fancy man but he’s nothing but a nancy boy
He’s all pride and no joy

And being what you might call a whore
Always worked for me before
Now I’m a shabby doll
Untie the gag the cat’s out of the bag
But won’t show his claws
He’s just a shabby doll

She said you must be joking
Some things are left unspoken
You’re just a shabby doll
He’s lying limp and soaking
He was openly broken
By just a shabby doll

[Chorus]

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,405: ‘Shabby Doll’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    Oh, how I love this album. Somehow I feel that even those who dislike or are otherwise indifferent to Costello would like or even love this album if they gave it a listen through. And while the comparison to Sgt. Peppers is appropriate given the musical adventurousness and creativity pouring through this record, at the risk of sacrilege, I think it is a far stronger album than Peppers. Frankly, there are some weaker songs on Peppers, while I don’t hear a weak link on Imperial Bedroom.

    This and King of America are, in my view, Elvis at his finest and, while he has made other wonderful albums–these are the two I will forever cherish.

  2. Dana says:

    Amy has, and Clay has offered to allow me to do that, but I haven’t yet done it. I will some day.

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