Elvis Costello writes and sings about the bribing and manipulation of the working class as if he'd known about it all his life. He didn't. His family was successful (or at least successful enough) in the music business, his father having been a popular British big band singer.
"Pills and Soap" and "Shipbuilding," two songs from Costello's new album, Punch the Clock, express the helplessness and frustration of the English working class, searching for work under the recently extended Tory rule, with all the eloquence and subtlety of a man just given a fake gold watch and then told to retire. Imagine, then, how he can write about something he's more familiar with.
Most of Punch the Clock deals with middle class love and life, as seen through the eyes of yet another new Costello. In this latest endeavor he is getting old, starting to think about "the best years of our life / now they're here and gone" on the album's first song, "Let Them All Talk."
"Let Them All Talk" starts the album off with a jubillant burst from the TKO Horns (a pleasant addition), a fast pace and lively beat. But Costello spends most of the song and the rest of the album talking about turbulent love and fleeting youth.
This is a happy album, after all Costello's wild journeys from fury to melancholy. He is happy but scared, scared of creeping death and of clocking in and out until he clocks his life away.
"Let Them All Talk" sets the general mood: Youth only comes once, so enjoy it while it's still here, let them say what they will. This theme recurs in "The Greatest Thing," "T.K.O.," "Charm School" and the album's two finest songs.
"The Invisible Man" is a catchy tune about someone who worked hard and realized "success," only to become disillusioned. He wishes only to escape: "I want to get out while I still can / I want to be like Harry Houdini / Now I'm the Invisible Man." "The World and His Wife" is quite different — a chronicle, written with mixed feelings of sentiment and sourness, of a family and a family reunion.
The rest of the album is filled with love songs that rival the best of Costello's previous album, Imperial Bedroom. The single, "Everyday I Write the Book," is a tease for what's to come.
On "The Element Within Her," "Love Went Mad" and "Charm School" we find Costello at his saddest and cleverest, weaving phrases and puns with a skill for telling tales of love that could leave even the most cynical lover thinking, "Hey, that's exactly the way I once felt."
Finally, I must mention "Shipbuilding." Like "Shot With His Own Gun" from Trust and "Almost Blue" from Imperial Bedroom, "Shipbuilding" (co-written by the album's co-producer, Clive Langer), is the only real slow song on the album and, like them, a masterpiece.
Punch the Clock is a fine album, to be rated neither above nor below Costello's previous work. The Attractions sparkle — especially keyboardist Steve Nieve — and Costello's voice is becoming more and more that of a singer. It is beginning to seem that he will never run out of clever insights in-to human emotions.