With his new album, Punch the Clock (Columbia, 38897), Elvis Costello is the winner and still champion. As he has done on almost all his past LPs, he has taken a big step beyond his previous work, not to mention a big step beyond whatever his rock competitors are doing.
Costello's album titles usually contain various meanings, and this one follows suit. At least three interpretations come quickly to mind.
First, his favorite theme romance, specifically its bitter side — is put in terms of obligation, work, "punching the clock." Second, this bitterness results largely from the passing of time and being unable to do anything about it; to "punch [out] the clock" is to express anger over this passing, which Costello does in riveting detail here. Third, the title hints at the aggressive sound of the music, the antithesis of last year's sleepy-sounding Imperial Bedroom.
Time imagery pervades the album. The opener, "Let Them All Talk," sets the tone with its anguished lines, "Oh yeah we're killing time just to keep you clocking on. These are the best years of your life, now they're here and gone."
Time always passes by the songs' characters, leaving them to do nothing but watch in helplessness and growing despair. In "Love Went Mad," Costello sings, "I've looked at it every way I can, from under and above, but every chance I've had, my love went mad."
The theme of missed chances is repeated throughout the LP, as in "Shipbuilding," in which people are "diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls."
So ends side one. The second side shows the results of time's erosive effect and of an those missed opportunities. "T.K.O. (Boxing Day)" centers on the threatening line, "From this day everyday will be boxing day." In the seedy affair in "Charm School," a man admits "we make believe we're making do."
"The Invisible Man," a song that could carry special meaning for those in the public eye, details how the search for an elusive image can be taken too far: "I want to be like Harry Houdini. Now I'm the invisible man." In "Mouth Almighty," a man who "can't control my tongue" shoots his mouth off too often and loses his lover.
Finally, "The World and His Wife" captures the sense of resignation to the state of affairs Costello has described. "It's a living. This is the life," go the somewhat sarcastic final lines of the album.
The musical punch comes from Costello's outstanding backup. The Attractions (bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas, and the amazing Steve Nieve on keyboards) are still aboard and once more stake their position as rock's best backup band.
Two firsts for Costello are a Memphis-style horn section and female background singers. The TKO Horns (Jim Paterson on trombone, Jeff Blythe on saxophones and clarinet, Paul Speare on saxophone and flute, and Dave Plews on trumpet) lend a lot of bite and swing to several compositions, while Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine provide a cool contrast to Costello's impassioned vocals.
For the fourth time in as many albums, Costello has recruited a different producer. This time it's a producing duo, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who have worked for the English band Madness.
They make Costello sound a bit slicker than normal. It's not a negative slickness, though; rather, it brings out the music's power. The rhythm section, which was deliberately put in the background on Imperial Bedroom, is up front on Punch the Clock. The drums, the bass and especially the horns pop with authority.
In addition, Costello's mastery of complex chording and rhythms continues to grow with each record. Ironically, while his musical and lyrical complexity (some may call it anti-pop) has made him a favorite of critics and discerning fans, it has probably kept him from being a popular hit. To his credit, that hasn't stopped him from crafting the best possible music he or anyone else on the rock scene is capable of.