Carleton University Charlatan, September 3, 1983

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Carleton University Charlatan

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Punch The Clock

Elvis Costello

Louis Tessier

OK, so you're looking at the headline, probably thinking, "What is this? This isn't THE Elvis. This is just some jerk who stole his name."

Well, in the beginning, anyway, that was the point. In late 1977, the ambiguity, the audacity of using the King's name, especially when he had just died, was in itself a good enough reason for using it. There was a lot of meaning wrapped up into that single word — a mingled disgust and longing for the heroes of the past, a calculated desire to shock, a demand to be noticed, if not taken seriously.

I still remember where and when I bought my copy of My Aim is True. It was in Sherman's on Sparks, it was around Easter 1978 and it cost me $4.43. My friends and I read about the Massey Hall and El Mocambo concerts, green with envy, jealous of The Globe and Mail writers who were actually there. We felt isolated, being in Grade 10 and stuck away in Ottawa. So we read anything we could get out hands on and knew what was going on at CBGB'S, and what was number one on the British charts, even if such information was often two months out of date. New York or London was where everything was happening, California was dead, and home wasn't even on the map.

But all that was six years ago.

Elvis is no longer on the cutting edge of fashion and the once daring ploy of appropriating a famous name seems to embarrass him. He is apparently even considering going back to his Christian name, Declan McManus.

For some people, he seems to have taken Bob Dylan's role as the thinking musician. Maybe he realizes this. The Dylanesque pose he strikes on the cover could only be an attempt to pull the collective leg of his audience.

A sometimes arrogant, sometimes cheeky figure, Elvis has seemingly never been afraid to do what he wanted, artistically speaking. Witness Almost Blue, despised by many and beloved by few.

In the beginning, of course, this was not a problem. Audiences were drawn by the snottiness, the selfish, twisted little boy mentality he displayed so brilliantly on his first two albums. Even his obvious misogynistic streak was a selling point to people fed up with the lullabyes coming out of L.A.'s recording studios.

But audiences began to drift away after Get Happy. Elvis was getting too introspective. By the 1982 tour conducted to publicize Imperial Bedroom, Time reported that Elvis's audiences grew restless at the newer songs, demanding the anthems of the past.

Imperial Bedroom, of course, is a brilliant achievement, of a quality most artists cannot hope to match. But despite the critical accolades, it was derided by some as cocktail music, Elvis gone soft.

One thing, however is for sure: Punch the Clock is very much in the shadow of Imperial Bedroom. Elvis here is hard to pin down. On Imperial Bedroom he often edged towards a sort of sympathy he has often been reluctant to display. On Punch the Clock, Elvis sometimes seems as cagey as in the old days, turning his lyric skill in on itself.

Like "Every Day I write the Book," a hooky, catchy sort of tune that owes more to "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" than "Allison." Lyrics such as "Chapter One we really didn't get along" are not all that far from "When you were only 10, we didn't like each other." I can only say "Yuck!"

On the other side of the coin, however; is "Shipbuilding," a song about the dilemma of ordinary people faced with the choice (not of their own making) between unemployment, and drudging, dangerous work. There are also overtones of the arms race debate, as certain sectors of North American society point out that arms production means jobs. "Shipbuilding" is an eloquent song, with a quiet, yearning tone. Ironically, it is also the song on the album which bears the closest resemblance to anything that appears on Imperial Bedroom.

"The Greatest Thing" harkens back to the snottiness of 1977-78. Putdown after cynical putdown brings "This Year's Girl" to mind, but Elvis breathlessly utters these lyrics, in a tone of voice far removed from the sneer of "TYG."

There is no question, of course, that the sometimes bitter aphorisms Elvis spits out are still better than the banalities which pass for lyrics in this era of Tears for Fears and The Human League.

The truth of the matter, however, is that even a mediocre Elvis Costello album is still a hell of a lot better and more interesting than a mediocre album by somebody else.

Punch the Clock is actually a pretty good, not bad, lukewarm sort of record, and to anybody who really loved Imperial Bedroom, it's bound to be something of a letdown. To be fair, this album wasn't meant to be a followup to Imperial Bedroom, but it's going to be viewed that way no matter what.

All I know is that previous to this album, I can tell you with absolute clarity how I acquired each record. I'm not sure whether I bought Punch the Clock at Record Runner or Records on Wheels.

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The Charlatan, September 3, 1983


Louis Tessier reviews Punch The Clock.

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1983-09-03 Carleton University Charlatan page 44.jpg
Page scan.

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