Existing somewhere on the fringes of pop music in a private world where hatred and love, and joy and pain, are forever united is British recording artist Elvis Costello, a herky-jerky little man whose enormous talents are again revealed in his latest studio release, Punch The Clock (Columbia Records/CBS Inc.).
Since first hitting these shores with the critically acclaimed My Aim Is True, the 1977 Rolling Stone Magazine album of the year, Costello has amazingly churned out nine emotionally-fired albums. Still in his early 20s, the El has already shifted musical directions from bitter punk to country western in his earlier musical explorations. In the 1983 model, we find he has combined the diversified elements of his career, added a smoking horn section and soulful backing vocals, and has come up with a masterpiece that transcends most everything he's previously recorded.
From the opening "Let Them All Talk" on side one, we immediately know Elvis is over his depression that plagued last year's uninspired Imperial Bedroom collection."
Led into the introductory song with a punchy swing provided by the six-member TKO horn section, Costello jumps from the vinyl commanding his latest anonymous lover to "Hear what I say / See what I do / Believe me now I'm all over you."
Also introduced on the opening cut are vocalists Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine, who add yet another dimension to Elvis' varied vocal ploys.
Switching to a more downtrodden beat for "Everyday I Write The Book," Costello vows to detail his heart-scorched miseries in print for the world to see. Although thematically reminiscent of Nick Lowe's "When I write the book," this song retains originality musically with some spirited, almost uplifting work towards the end.
In his cynical style that has become a Costello trademark, Elvis again changes the tempo of the next song, "The Greatest Thing," a rocker driven by the crisp drumming of Pete Thomas and polished off with a jazzy horn jam.
"Punch the clock and in time you'll get pulled apart / If you're married on paper and not in your heart / But I won't be told that life with the one you love is sordid / Just because some authority says you can't afford it"
Closing side one is "Shipbuilding," a stirring ballad of futility which appeals to the working class of England much the same way Bruce Springsteen's "Factory" does to American blue collar workers.
Relying on the brass instruments to accentuate his anger, Costello opens side two with "TKO," in which he battles his own frustrations and verbally knocks out his hapless sparring partner.
"They put the numb into number they put the cut into cutie they put the slum into slumber and the boot into beauty."
In "Charm School," the dancing keyboards of Steve Nieve on Bosendorfer piano carries Elvis through a personal exploration of his romantic inclinations for a lover he finds more cruel than charming.
Always out of the mainstream, but nonetheless usually on stage for public inspection, Costello reflects on his own professional experiences in "The Invisible Man." During an early, misunderstood episode in his tumultuous career, Costello became ostracized by many fans in the United States following a barroom brawl with popular American singer/songwriter Stephen Stills. Despite this incident, and a subsequent lack of airplay on radio, Costello still continued to create his individual brand of music largely ignoring commercial considerations. But apparently it left its mark.
"I was committed to life and then commuted to the outskirts."
His never-ending struggle with the confusions of modern romance continue in "Mouth Almighty" as Elvis confesses the inner pains brought on by his own verbal ramblings.
"So I threw away the rose and held on to the thorn / Crawling round with my crooner cufflinks and my calling card cologne / But the realization of being replaced starts to tell tales across my face / Without a soul to talk to or a hair out of place"
With adept use of double meanings and other rhetorical devices, Elvis next tells a story of the sanctimonious coronation of the "King of Thieves" before moving into a scathing, yet beautifully sung attack on the aristocratic hypocrisy pressuring youth today in the UK.
"The sugar-coated pill is getting bitterer still / You think your country needs you, but you know it never will / So pack up your troubles in a stolen handbag / Don't dilly-dally boys, rally 'round the flag / Give us our daily bread in individual slices / And something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis"
Elvis concludes the album with tongue firmly in cheek in the jumpy "The World and His Wife," a humorous song in which Costello picks apart the warped sexual relations that make headlines in newspapers throughout the free world.
In addition to the aforementioned horn section, the full utilization of his talented band, Attractions, helps make this Costello's most exciting album since Get Happy was released in 1980. In a business where cliched bands rise to stardom and fall to obscurity with the spin of a turntable, E.C. continues to grow as a uniquely creative force in the world of contemporary music.