I remember when Elvis Costello and the Attractions' 5th album Taking Liberties came out — a compilation of B sides and UK singles — and received a mediocre to bad review in The New York Times. A friend of mine convinced me to buy the LP without my having heard it. He said, "Look, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan don't write bad songs." I had to agree. Elvis Costello had been my favorite for about 7 or 8 months and Taking Liberties only helped to solidify that position.
Three years later Elvis has yet to write a bad song. His latest release, Punch the Clock, is wonderful. While the music seems to flow logically from the last album, Imperial Bedroom, it also explores new sounds, featuring the TKO horn section, and female background vocalists called Afrodiziak (you know, like green M&M's). Elvis has never had any background vocals besides himself, and these women are a great new touch. While Elvis has never had a horn section, his new album relies heavily on TKO – formerly Dexy's Midnite Runners.
Interestingly, Elvis' old material also generally goes great with the horns. In concert this summer, the horn section played for about two-thirds of the show and was a superb addition. Imagine the riff of "Pump it Up" done with horns, or any of the soulful Get Happy songs perked up by a horn section. The results were great.
The first song on Punch the Clock, "Let Them All Talk," is a perfect demonstration of the powerful new horn sound as well as the female background vocalists, Elvis probably recognized this, as he not only opened the album but also his concerts, with this tune. The thing I found puzzling about the live shows was that he didn't include Afrodiziak. In his past shows, the vocals were always a little peculiar, because certain things that Elvis could do in the studio on vocals were impossible live, so it would have been worthwhile to bring the ladies along on tour.
It seems that Elvis Is very pleased with the popular single "Every Day I Write the Book," because I've never seen him smile while singing any other song. He might be smiling even more if this breaks as the first big hit by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. It's presently in the Top 50. It's also their first song made into a video since MTV and, get this, a 12 inch extended dance remix has been released, although I haven't seen it or heard it yet. I happen to think that the next song on the LP, "The Greatest Thing," is a more danceable cut.
Elvis Costello has a well deserved reputation for his meaningful and often biting lyrics, and though he seems to get more romantic and less mean with each record, a sharp edge still cuts through his work. The happy chorus of "Love Went Mad" fits in well with ‘the fun romantic side, but the verse with it's spooky sound and tough lyrics Is quite a contrast, The line "I wish you luck with a capital F" sets the tone. Another spooky sounding song is "Pills and Soap." Elvis had some trouble with his UK record label, F-beat Records, and released "Pills and Soap" in the UK, before Punch The Clock came out, under the name The Imposter (the name of a song from Get Happy), rather than as Elvis Costello and the Attractions, It wasn't supposed to, and didn't fool anyone. The reason Elvis released it when he did was to coincide with the British elections last spring,because the song does have a potent message.
The most meaningful song on the LP is the ballad, "Shipbuilding," inspired by the Falklands war, and co-penned with Clive Langer, who along with Alan Winstanley produced Punch the Clock. Langer and Winstanley are known for their work with Madness and Dexy's Midnite Runners.
Like the style he moved towards on Imperial Bedroom, Elvis' songs lack the strict structure they once had with the traditional verse-chorus-verse chorus setup. My current favorite on the album "TKO (Boxing Day)" is another great performance by the horns and Afrodiziak, with an unusual chorus or horn riff, and then "TKO" sung by the women. The nasty lyrics in this one are pretty slick too: "They put the numb into number / They put the cut in cutie / They put the slum into slumber / And the boot into beauty."
Elvis has done an interesting thing with lyrics written on the sleeve of the LP. Certain lines or phrases are printed in bolder type than others. In the song "Charm School" I thought that the big line was "didn't they teach you anything except how to be cruel in that charm school." Typical Elvis, but the line he's got in bold is "TRYING TO MAKE A LIVING." The line seems to tie in with the title of the album, Punch the Clock. "Punch the Clock" itself appears (in bold) in the song mentioned earlier, "The Greatest Thing" but, resolves Elvis, "I PUNCH THE CLOCK / and it's 0K / I KNOW A GIRL WHO TAKES MY BREATH AWAY." seems to be a grin and bear it attitude, and Elvis doesn't seem to be bearing too much clock punching these days — although he titled his tour, "Clocking in across America." Elvis is making a stab at getting back to roots. He used to "punch the clock" as a computer programmer before he stormed onto the music scene in 1977. The cover photo also brings us back in time, with Elvis dressing and looking like Bob Dylan did on his first LP in 1961.
In my opinion, Imperial Bedroom is the best record of all time, by anyone. Punch The Clock is by no means a letdown, however. It is at number 25 after only six weeks, which is an impressive achievement, and if the single really breaks, it could send the album soaring.