Elvis Costello's latest album, Punch the Clock, is immensely appealing and deeply discouraging at the same time. But then contradiction is one of Costello's most enduring characteristics.
Costello is perhaps the most important singer songwriter to emerge from the late 70s New Wave period, a formidable responsibility but one he has righteously pursued each time out.
The burden became considerably heavier following his last release, the indisputable masterpiece Imperial Bedroom.
Each of his succeeding records has eclipsed its predecessor in depth: one wondered how he was going to top Imperial Bedroom.
Now we have the answer. He didn't. But then he didn't try. For the first time, you see, Costello has decided to stretch out horizontally to refine his craft, compile styles rather than invent new ones.
The backlash has been swift and harsh with critics decrying Costello's alleged complacency. But Punch the Clock is not so much retrogressive as a step toward commerciality. Perhaps a long overdue one at that. Punch the Clock is easily Elvis' most accessible record with its brassy horns and other pop confections. The result has been his first American hit single, the Motown-inspired, richly melodic "Everyday I Write the Book." The metaphor is easy to grasp; no wonder it was the first single.
Even more rewarding is the album's chronological and emotional centerpiece, the mournful ballad "Shipbuilding." It's the commendable first attempt by a British songwriter to deal with the Falkland Islands war. "Within a week they'll be opening the shipyard / And notifying the next of kin," Costello sings. "Once again / It's all we're skilled in / We will be shipbuilding."
The other plainly political song, "Pills and Soap," finds Costello singing with a similar emotional depth, aided only by piano and hand-clap. It's a stirring moment.
On the more upbeat numbers, Costello gleefully displays his enviable dexterity with musical idioms and styles and an even more far-reaching ingenuity at combining them. His total command of the pop genre is commendable and his latest weapon, horns, is applied with his usual mastery. His sharp lyrical twists remain intact.
So what could be wrong? Most of the songs are fully realized, but several notable exceptions leave the nagging feeling that Costello seems to be exercising his verbal and musical agility for their own sake. When Costello was an angry young man there wasn't any question of his sincerity. Now that he has matured into a serious songwriter, it's become more difficult to make contact on all the levels all the time.
Turns of phrases and puns seem to be just thrown out in a haphazard effort to impress. How else to explain such hollow wizardry as this couplet from "Love Went Mad": "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef / I wish you luck with a capital F" or the incessant punstering of T.K.O."
Costello's compositional powers have never been more evident. It's a shame to see them squandered even occasionally on some eloquent gesture that is grander than its content. At this point, though, the worries are minor and tentative, overshadowed by the extraordinary attractiveness of the new album.
Perhaps as some have suggested, Punch the Clock is merely a holding pattern while Costello re-examines his gifts and abilities, selling a few records in the meantime. Or maybe his talents are growing faster than his emotional development. No problem. While Costello may have become just a bit too impressed with his own abilities, he's still the best pop songwriter on either side of the Atlantic. I'll eagerly await the next record.