Elvis Costello has always been the idiot savant of modern pop music. Sort of an autistic/artistic pigeon-toed belligerent brat who consistently dazzled his audience with melody hooks and a Dylan Thomas love for intellectual word play. Occasionally, he left his workaholic studio schedule to spiral on stage and blow the critics' skirts up. "Oh how we love Elvis," everyone agreed.
If such works as My Aim is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces (even Almost Blue) are the works of a possessed budding genius — Punch the Clock, the latest addition to the list, is the work of an eccentric uncle who ain't been quite right since the war.
Two songs on Punch are quite simply his best work to date. "Pills and Soap," released in cloak and dagger darkness in England as a single under the alias The Imposter, is as unnerving as "Waiting For The End of the World." Also, "Shipbuilding," a smokey ballad concerning the economic repercussions of Britain's Falkland Island assault, fine tunes Costello's oftentimes ambiguous political stands.
Costello has ditched the grandiose arrangements and banshee howls of his previous album Imperial Bedroom (a personal rave of mine), and replaced it with a streamlined tower of power brass horn section. Add to that a duo of female back-up singers fresh from a studio session with Boy George, mix it with his factory line bouncing melodies and sprinkle generously with Joycean babble and there you have it.
This is not to imply that Punch is a throwaway album. (It's not within Costello's ability to do one). The fans and critics have come to expect so much from their favorite troubled son that when he assumes the role of talented-songsmith-just-practicing-his-craft, they feel cheated. Even when Elvis decides to coast, he soars past most self-proclaimed song writers hacking and imitating today (Marshall Crenshaw, Joe Jackson, etc.).
For the time being, the aging eccentric uncle remains in the attic spinning incredible war stories with occasional lapses into sheer brilliance.