Elvis Costello's Punch The Clock is an album that is at best a mediocre followup to his masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom. That is not to say that this album is a throwaway; there are a few high points. Unfortunately, the high points are few.
On this release, Costello, who has been touted by many critics as the best songwriter of the current generation, gives us a poor example of his talent. As an Elvis fan, I was disappointed to find this new selection of songs lacking in coherence and direction. What Costello does in the space of a little over 40 minutes is list his views on everything from love in relationships (in "Mouth Almighty") to hate in relationships ("Charm School") to contempt for the government ("Pills and Soap") and abhorrence of war ("Shipbuilding"). What results from this verbal overkill is a muddled message that confuses the listener.
Although Costello is not generally known for sticking to one theme per album — it was on Imperial Bedroom where he first used a single theme and consequently ended up with a classic disc — he is known for his abundant supply of catchy hooks and melodies. Unfortunately, few of these are found on this record.
With the exception of three songs, the album doesn't have any tunes that instantly catch the ear. Although you may find yourself immediately humming to the pump-it-up chorus of "Let Them All Talk," the swing phrasing of "Everyday I Write The Book," or the crooning verses of "Mouth Almighty," there is little else that is memorable. Even the poignant anti-war ballad "Shipbuilding" — originally written as a protest against the Falkland Islands War — has no real chorus and just seems to uncomfortably fade out.
One interesting but not necessarily beneficial addition on this album is TKO, a four-piece horn section that accompanies Elvis' already superb backup band, The Attractions. TKO's job seems to be to make the songs swing in the fashion of Frank Sinatra or Mel Torme, but often they fail to add anything interesting. The idea is great, and it does work effectively in spots, like in "Let Them All Talk," but they should be used more sparingly. In the songs "TKO" and "Invisible Man" the horns tend to get annoying by distracting the listener from serious lyrics.
A word should also be said about the lyrics on the album. Elvis' inclusion of a lyrics sheet in Punch the Clock is certainly a plus, because with a singer like Costello, the words are a vital part of the music, and that is said is sometimes lost in the singer's accent or in the mix. However, this album's lyrics are definitely not up to Elvis' reputation for excellence. The images and symbols he employs, as well as his puns and tricks in wording, tend to be ambiguous. For example, in "Let Them All talk" he says, "Hear what I say / See what I do / Believe me now I'm all over you."
It's hard to tell if what he wants us to do is to take him literally or if he is telling us that he has just called it quits with his latest flame. In "The King Of Thieves" and "The Invisible Man," Elvis does not give as a hint at who the king of thieves is nor why he wants to be invisible. "Everyday I Write The Book," which is receiving a lot of airplay, is a nonsense song that has no apparent meaning. The same can be said of "The World And His Wife."
Even more so than on Imperial Bedroom, Costello on this album has lost the cutting edge that was once so prominent in the lyrics of his early albums. Maybe it is just because Elvis has mellowed out, no longer finding use for the angry young man pose he formerly flaunted.
This album should not be used as an introduction to Elvis Costello's music. It simply is not one of his better records. However, it is still worth the attention of an Elvis fan.