There are very few poet laureates of pop. Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Van Morrison immediately spring to mind. Those artists have achieved the respect and success that is their do with surprising ease compared with other artists who struggle in other mediums. It's the mass-marketing nature of popular music.
But then, there's always the odd man out. The one who has to struggle a bit harder to get his message across.
If you view life as an intricate tapestry, then I don't think you'll find another artist in popular music like Elvis Costello who has consistently contributed such a rich, lustrous texture to that weave and inevitably finds himself brushed under the carpet for his effort.
Punch The Clock (Columbia FC-38877) is Elvis Costello and The Attractions' eighth album in seven years and, in a sense, it might as well be the first. Certainly Costello has made something of a mark here in The States and his albums sell well enough that he can retain a major label recording contract. But even Costello admits that he is frustrated that his message isn't getting across to a larger audience. Maybe the problem with Costello's music is that there is a message at all.
Last year's model, Imperial Bedroom, was a dense, lavish work that, to say the least, required more than the ability to dance and chew gum at the same time to fully appreciate. In general, it was a chilling, somewhat detached account of boardroom/bedroom politics. This year's model is warmer and more straightforward.
Punch the Clock was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. (The pair's most recent credits include hits for Madness and Dexy's Midnight Runners.) And this go 'round, Elvis has acquired a four piece horn section, the TKO horns, and a pair of female backup vocalists called, appropriately enough, Afrodiziak.
Included on Punch the Clock are two of the most devastating, political commentaries ever put to music. Elvis fanatics will, no doubt, be familiar with Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," a bittersweet, poignant observation of the far-reaching effects of the Falkland Islands war. Elvis wrote the devastating lyrics and Langer supplied the haunting melody. Wyatt's version is the definitive one, if for no other reason than his plaintive vocal. Check it out. But Costello's rendering is no less effective, thanks in part to Chet Baker's gorgeous trumpet solos.
Meanwhile, Elvis had written a song about the British general elections. And, due to ongoing negotiations over a new recording contract, released the eerie commentary on British politics, "Pills and Soap," under the alias, The Imposter. The single was deleted on election day lest anyone miss the point. A slightly reworked version of that tune also appears on Punch the Clock.
Unlike Imperial Bedroom, the music on Punch the Clock is pretty straight-forward. So much so that you tend to overlook the subtleties involved. What you begin to notice is the adventurous harmonies amid the other subtle flavors. Costello is writing vocal harmonies as adventurous as early Lennon and McCartney.
And then there are the lyrics. Costello's words carry at least as much weight as his music and, in some cases, are eloquent enough to stand on their own.
"Everyday I Write the Book" is a clever love song reminiscent of the old Monotones' hit from the '50s, "The Book of Love." My favorite lyrics include, "You said you'd stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three. But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five and Six. Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal. I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel."
But the humor quickly gives way to the really devastating punch of the aforementioned "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap." From "Shipbuilding" "It's just a rumour that was spread around town. A telegram or a picture postcard. Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards and notifying the next of kin, once again. It's all we're skilled in. We will be shipbuilding with all the will in the world. Diving for dear life when we should be diving for pearls."