Elvis Costello doesn't want much. Just everything. Like the rest of us. only worse, because how many of us write songs and wish we were Cole Porter and Chuck Berry at the same time? This boy really expects to orchestrate songs and relationships so that both provide cheap thrills and eternal bliss in more or less equal measure. Be my wife, be my weekend. Be Little Richard, be Rachmaninoff.
It's a tall order for such a bilious young man, and Punch The Clock is a (fairly) simple case of reach exceeding grasp. Or maybe ambitions at a zenith while everyone in the office is home in bed with a bad case of ennui. Punch The Clock may not advance Costello's grand artistic plans as well as Imperial Bedroom, but it's not a bad album. Elvis seems a little bored with certain emotional cul de sacs, a little fed up with his own word games. Watching the clock, maybe? Am I a great songwriter yet? Great enough. Who cares? Now get back to work and relax. Dig?
The verdict seems split on the record's most obvious changes from the past — and now, everybody. welcome Elvis Costello doing Southside Johnny! Two friends of mine who know more about Costello than an9one rightly should called me the same week in the middle of the night to deliver equally awe-filled verdicts. "It's awwfulll," wailed one. Then, in a whisper. "there's horns. And background vocalists." The other one cooed and billed over the same. So next time, bagpipes? It is a tribute to Costello's gifts that he (more or less) gets away with it.
At first the clutter is startling, especially since the production is crystalline and you can hear nearly everything, particularly at the high end. The goodies bounce along with insolence and a blessed ignorance of their own bulk; as in cuts like "Let Them All Talk," "The Greatest Thing," "Invisible Man" and "The World And His Wife." "TKO (Boxing Day)" clunks and brays horribly. but the thrill of Costello trying to be a fabulous Rhinestone carries it through. The background vocalists are pretty benign anyway. Musical thrill of the hour comes from the miracle fingers of Steve Nieve, who defines the word "versatile" for any keyboard player currently functioning.
Ostensibly, Punch The Clock follows up Imperial Bedroom as per theme; what happens when the eternal bliss becomes just eternal while the cheap thrills aren't so cheap anymore? Or thrilling? "Punch the clock and in time you'll get pulled apart / If you're married on paper and not in your heart," goes a signpost line in "The Greatest Thing." Okay, fine, but is the jittery blah overtone of the LP cinema verite, or is Elvis pooped out from asking too much (of himself) too soon?
Three songs on side two teeter among the gimpiest Elvis has ever done; they're the ones with the laziest lyrics and the splittest musical personalities. Sure, the phrase "Mouth Almighty" is choice, but it doesn't carry or coalesce a whole song. "Charm School" sports a riff from "Summer Of '42" (no foolin'), baggy-eyed rhythmic inertia and some cringers such as "You and I as lovers / Were nothing but a farce / Trying to make a silk purse / Out of a sow's arse." "King Of Thieves" puts its frowning face down in a puddle of strings and solemn nonsequiters and predictably drowns.
What we may have here is another simple classic (yes. Elvis, classic) case of self-consciousness, that is no harm in going for the brass ring, but if you watch yourself in transit, you're likely to end up with the damn thing around your neck. When it comes to women, wine and song — a little greed is a dangerous thing.