Elvis (as his fans affectionately refer to him) has come a long way from the bespectacled, goofy- looking, angry young man persona which served as new wave's most articulate spokesman back in the '70s. Yet it is a shame that after his near brilliant first three LPs (My Aim Is True (77), This Year's Model (78), Armed Forces (78)), his subsequent work has promised more than it has actually delivered.
Then again, it is hard to believe Punch The Clock is already Costello's ninth LP, though its flaws are entirely indicative of why he has failed to generate more than a cult following in this country — even if the correlation between popularity and artistic merit need not apply in his case.
This artist has staked much of his (critically lauded) reputation on his lyrical aptitude, and that penchant for the insightful and the provocative is still evident here. Unlike 90 percent of today's recording artists, Elvis does have important things to say. Topics this time around include matrimonial illusion ("The Greatest Thing"), impending war ("Shipbuilding"), cinema dreams ("The Invisible Man"), and off-beat romance ("Love Went Mad," "Mouth Almighty").
It is his inability, though, to translate compelling prose into engaging songs which proves once again to be Elvis' downfall. Punch The Clock reminds us that he is a thinking person's songwriter whose musical treatments are never quite immediate or stirring enough to make the listener care. Rich instrumentation, including a beefy horn section and Steve Nieve's distinguished piano work, fail to transcend mostly mediocre compositions and arrangements. Cohesion and refinement are lacking on all but a few cuts, such as the mid-tempo charm of "Charm School" and "Pills And Soap," and the ballad warnings of "Shipbuilding."
Too many of the fast-paced romps lack musical depth, instead utilizing twisted, discordant hooks which rely more on repetition and irritating female backup choruses than true melodic flair. His unconventional, poorly articulated vocals also sound more convincing on the slower tunes.
As with last year's Imperial Bedroom, Punch The Clock offers only a partially satisfying challenge to the argument that Elvis' artistic maturity is a poor substitute for the impassioned snarl of older classics such as "Red Shoes," "Pump It Up," "Radio Radio" and even the heartfelt sentimentality of "Alison." It is that intangible magic spark that seems to be missing.