Tell Cole Porter he can stop turning in his grave.
Upon the release of 1982's Imperial Bedroom, critics touted Elvis Costello as the new Porter, the composer responsible for such contemporary classics as "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Begin the Beguine."
Costello's new LP, Punch the Clock, though not matching the sheer brilliance of its predecessor, is a solid album nonetheless; not exceptional by Costello's standards, but still one of the best LPs of 1983.
Its usually easy to distinguish Costello's work by his underlying mood and attitude conveyed on his albums. For instance. anger and frustration are prevalent on This Year's Model. Politics are emphasized on Armed Forces. And, Get Happy displayed Elvis' fondness for the '60s Stax Records' sound. Punch the Clock isn't so easy to figure out.
On the surface, Costello seems to be striking a "happy young man pose," something noticeably missing in the past. The music is happy, uptempo and glib. Producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley utilize horns and female backup singers, giving the album a Motown meets Phil Spector sound.
A careful listen, however, indicates that the whimsy of the music is simply a facade for downridden, introspective (for Costello, anyway) lyrics.
Like the Clash and the now-defunct Beat, Costello provides thinking man's dance music — melody with a message. Throughout Clock, Costello subtly tells the listener of his problems of dealing with success and marriage. On "Everyday I Write the Book," Costello's problems are obscured by Steve Nieve's gleeful finger work, Elvis' soulful crooning and classic Costello wordplay.
Likewise, "Let Them All Talk," "The Greatest Thing," and "Love Went Mad" all touch on the difficulties of wedded bliss, but their lyrical impact is blanketed by the slick production. Where's Nick Lowe when you need him?
Thus, most of Punch the Clock is unimpressive when pitted against previous Costello efforts. But in the cuts where Elvis' music and words do work together — "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap" — the album takes off. Costello's mournful delivery of "Shipbuilding," a narrative of a town remedying economic woes in favor of war, takes the intricate number from Bedroom a step further. Costello weaves a mesmerizing talc in emulating the townspeople. "We will be shipbuilding / With all the will in the world / Diving for dear life / When we could he diving for pearls"
"Pills and Soap," is even better. Costello's deliberate, concise vocals, combined with Nieve's suspenseful piano
and ominous finger snapping, bring this horror film-like tune to a dramatic climax.
So what if Punch the Clock isn't Porteresque. It may even be completely Costelloesque. But in a year where mindless flash has taken precedence over substance, Elvis still reigns king.