Like many working musicians, Elvis Costello had to cancel a tour and other best-laid plans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With his itinerary scuppered, he made the best of a restricted situation and emerged at year's end with one of the most challenging — and ultimately rewarding — albums of his career.
Hey Clockface is a daring amalgam of recordings from three distinct sessions. The bulk come from Paris with a combo featuring Steve Nieve on all kinds of keyboards, with brass, reeds, and cello from some French musicians, and even Steve's stepson AJUQ on drums and harmonies. (Steve spent the lockdown holed up in the French countryside with his wife Muriel Teodori and stepson, and streamed "Daily Improvisations" for weeks on end over Facebook.) For variety, some solo recordings come from Helsinki with a rhythmic approach inspired by Tom Waits' Real Gone, and two songs were collaborated on and recorded remotely during the lockdown with Michael Leonhart and Bill Frisell. When put together, it all works.
"Revolution #49" begins with a sound not unlike Peter Gabriel's Mideast experiments, giving way to a spoken narrative as clear as mud. It's a nice lead-in to the angry "No Flag," one of the Helsinki tracks that thankfully has enough instrumentation to cover his mouth percussion. One can imagine what the Imposters would bring to this tune. "They're Not Laughing At Me Now" is mildly smug song of schadenfreude, sung at a slow pace, almost relishing the comeuppance. The mysterious "Newspaper Pane" is one of the Leonhart-Frisell collaborations, fitting seamlessly with the rest of the tracks (thanks to the Nieveian organ parts), while "I Do (Zula's Song)" has a mournful gait that recalls several facets of Tom Waits, whoever Zula is.
"We Are All Cowards Now" is the best of the Helsinki recordings, as it sounds like an actual band, and provides less ambiguous protest than "No Flag." The title track comes at an odd place smack in the middle of the program, with a jokey vaudeville delivery already satisfied by "A Voice In The Dark." It seems to exist only to be shackled to Fats Waller's "How Can You Face Me?," which he's careful to credit.
Lovely as it is, "The Whirlwind" is a mysterious ballad that is part of the batch written for the musical staging of the political fable A Face In The Crowd, coming eventually to the Broadway stage. Unfortunately, "Hetty O'Hara Confidential" is the least successful of the Helsinki experiments, another portrait of another fictional muckraker, the story overtaken by the auteur's human beatbox. Just as inscrutable, "The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip" doesn't explain who she is or why we're hearing it, but it's a lovely melody contributed by Nieve and Teodori.
"What Is It That I Need That I Don't Already Have?" pits an aside by Bob Dylan to an arrangement recalling Leonard Cohen, then "Radio Is Everything" is another mysterious monologue over Frisell's loops and Leonhart's accompaniment. The mood shifts again for "I Can't Say Her Name," more cocktail ragtime oddly positioned in the sequence, particularly when he repeats the cartoony scatting from the title track over what should have been a fade. Thankfully, all is redeemed by the heartbreaking and gorgeous "Byline," from the piano and his melody to the lyrics and AJUQ's harmonic chorale.
In some ways, Hey Clockface can be seen a vast improvement over the similar experimentation that sank When I Was Cruel, delivering the late-night autumnal feel of North for easily Elvis's best jazz excursion to date. Maybe in a few years we'll actually know what the hell some of these songs are about.