By now it's obvious that Elvis Costello is the major singer/songwriter of his generation; what's gone unexplored is the inherent limitation of that status. Like Dylan and Springsteen before him, he's reached the point of mass-cult audience at which the flaws in his musical conceptions meet him face to face, proving that to be champion poet rocker is not to be a pop genius like, say, Marvin Gaye or Elton John, performers who can cross over into. dominant positions in the mainstream without too much message interrupting the groove or getting between the melodies, and the masses. Singer/songwriters generally have two problems — their singing and their songs — that preclude megadollar triumph. Most do what they can with their voices to put Over their lyrics, Which means that the total performance is an eccentric balance of the two, generally ignoring, or fudging, the harmonic niceties of conventional songwriting. Again like Dylan and Springsteen (or Young, or Reed, or Van Morrison), Costello has an unruly voice and overly literary lyrics, neither of which fits easily into pop form. These performers are MI writers first; they're singers by authorial rather than God-given voice, and they're not musicians at all, not in the technical sense of instrumentalists capable of playing others' repertoires. They therefore have evolved styles peculiarly suited to expressing their original compositional idiosyncrasies. All of which is to say that Costello's most jarringly juxtaposed stylistic experiments represent his most convincing and his most commercially flawed records. And that is why Punch the Clock (Columbia), his ninth album, and his most poppish since Armed Forces, is his most insignificant record, and potentially his greatest hit (cf. the Clash's Combat Rock).
Costello's three '70s albums followed the pub-to-punk-to-pop development of the formative new wave, transforming bitterness into rage into distance, more or less in tune with the times. The '80s Elvis is a new man. He should have given up the pseudonym (it still sounds stupid, and it betrays his stature) when he gave up the rock and roll. And as versatile as they are, the Attractions never struck me as a rock band — simply not enough guitar. As Costello began to marry adult themes to adult musics, the band, especially keyboardist Steve Nieve, evolved into an all-purpose unit — like the bands that play at weddings, only in a different league. But clearly the ambition of Elvis's records in this decade is to rewrite all the fake books in his own hand, to create an entire repertoire of classic standards that flesh out his vision of modern social functioning.
Ugly cover art, choked production, and all, the first of these records, Get Happy! remains my favorite Elvis, because on it he discovered (his) soul, both as genre and as spirit. At first he flattened out his cross-genre ambitions within the murky production c of his lounge-trio backing band. Mixing up jazz, romantic ballads, rhythm and blues, country, and vestiges of rock's subgeneric roots, he made everything better as it became more disjunct on Trust. And that, as the mock orchestra photo on the inner sleeve suggested, is when he should have dumped the band. It's excellent, I know, but if your diversity i going to be credible in a pop context, you'd better invest in the varied conventions. Which is what Billy Sherrill was doing on Almost Blue, and what the orchestra was doing on Imperial Bedroom. But because both were tacked on to the Attractions music, neither was integral or integrating. Never again would Elvis be as urgent as on Get Happy!, the climax and transformation of his idea of a rock band. On Trust and Imperial Bedroom the narrative in the writing and the narration in the singing went far beyond most of his earlier material; yet the breadth of the music was limited by the unvarying focus on keyboards.
Randy Newman has said that he doesn't think much of Costello's songwriting but does feel he's a great singer — an opinion that goes against the critical wisdom. As Newman should know better than most, a singer/songwriter can sing only from inside his own material. Costello's whisper-to-a-holler, spit-and-swallow delivery uses a range of emotional signals but lacks the fluidity to make. any but abrupt transitions. And it's the drama of these uncomfortable leaps that embodies the thematic awkwardness of his persona. Although Costello's never written a bad country song, he's made a bad country album, because his genre singing can work only within the voice of his sensibility. Costello is too sharp a wit, too fast and aggressive with his perceptions, to be credible singing a C&W weeper like "A Good Year for the Roses." "Mouth Almighty," on the new album, is his sendup of his own over-eager verbal talents.
In this light, Imperial Bedroom, which many critics thought of as last year's best record, is a botched masterpiece, both the culmination of and the dumping ground for the vagaries of that sensibility. Creating charged situations out of various musical points of view, the LP piled up layers of different vocal sounds as fractured as the cover painting. Imperial Bedroom contained Costello's most ambitious songs and deepest perceptions into the politics of marriage and sexual relationships, all derived from the moral drama of the country music he exorcised on Almost Blue and set to music that traversed the territory he wanted to conquer, from Sinatra to Dylan. As a listening experience, with its ceaselessly shifting voices, production values, styles, and instrumentation, Imperial Bedroom was hopelessly kaleidoscopic, revolving around an unfocused center.
Punch the Clock is nearly Imperial Bedroom's opposite. With the exception of its two best songs, "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap" (both previously released in different form as independent singles), the album is a collection of lightweight pop tunes buoyed by a horn section, female backup singers, and strings (all woven directly into the fabric of the compositions). Imperial Bedroom is a producer's record; Punch the Clock is an arranger's record. The songs, about half of which are pleasant filler, revert to the '60s borrowings of the Nick Lowe/Armed Forces days, but the sound transcends the Attractions — not the usual moods for modems but pure pop for now people. Costello's voice and lyrics both are hemmed in by the demands of the more complex, large-band arrangements, and the impact is diminished accordingly. Already on Trust and Imperial Bedroom the melodic intricacy of his cocktail ballads was stretching his singing, but in his tenuous grip on the tunes there was room for faltering and for drama. Now he seems to have written himself into a corner.
The opener, "Let Them All Talk," asks the question "Have we come this far to find a soul cliché?" and then does just that, with a perfect Motown chorus. The single — "Everyday I Write the Book — and "The Invisible Man" come up with irresistibly cute chorus hooks; and the TKO horns sound more like Chicago than Motown, because this is white pop music. Initially it's a shock to hear such charming, accessible, unburdened stuff, and you react not to the achievement but to the apparent lack of content and feeling. Then you notice the exceedingly coy mannerisms that Costello uses to stay on top of the band and in front of the backup singers without over1whelming either. Yet these songs make better radio than any Costello since "Oliver's Army" and "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?"
The album title is an image that recurs in the lyrics, and it describes the album — Costello marking time with his yearly quota of songs. The mundanities of the work day and of domestic boredom make up the substance, and there are equations of economic clock punching with perfunctory sexuality. "Punch the Clock and in time you'll get pulled apart / If you're married on paper and not in your heart" says "The Greatest Thing," which both defends and satirizes marriage. The emotional death in domestic complacency is reiterated in "Love Went Mad" ("Dying a thousand deaths in the comfort of your own home") and again in "The World and His Wife," which closes the album on a forceful drink-along chorus ("It's a living / This is the life").
At the end of side one, and just before the end of side two, appear the two dark ballads in which a deeper politics emerges. "Shipbuilding" was first released in a version sung by Robert Wyatt; it plays the economic hopes of the individual worker against the moral consequences of a defense-budget prosperity. Except for Chet Baker's trumpet solos Costello's version adds nothing to Wyatt's, but the song's worth hearing in a broader context, with the comforts of domesticity implying complicity in the war machine. If the sacrifice of young lives for the good of the nation seems a dreary and apt assessment of Thatcher's policies, "Pills and Soap" suggests an even more horrible future. "What would you say? What would you do? / Children and animals two by two / Give me the needle give me the rope / We're going to melt them down for pills and soap."
Both these songs seem motivated by the Falklands War, and by the British government's appeals to national pride amid economic degradation. "The sugar-coated pill is getting bitterer still / You think your country needs you but you know it never will." And it's clear the purpose of the domestic squabbles in the album's pop tunes is to implicate petty comfort in the decay of the system. In "The Invisible Man" Costello pleads escapism but finds that the entertainment designed to ameliorate the public is full of reverberant Orwellian paranoia: "Crowds surround loudspeakers hanging from lampposts / Listening to the murder mystery / Meanwhile someone's hiding in the classroom / Forging the books of history / Never mind there's a good film showing tonight / Where they hang everyone everybody who knows how to read and write." If this record succeeds on its own pop terms, as it seems to be doing on the radio, then the expanded arrangements may serve a more ambitious project that would have a more accessible surface and a more subversive content. And that would be a masterpiece of another kind altogether.
(Elvis Costello will be performing at the Cape Cod Coliseum on Saturday, August 6.)