What? An Elvis Costello record with horns, female backup singers and some happy tunes? That's exactly what is found on Punch the Clock, Costello's ninth American release, and certainly his most adventurous and exciting record.
Some died-in-the-wool Costello fans may be put off by his continual tinkering with his sound, but those who simply think that he should remain true to his new wave roots need to go back and re-examine their reasons for liking him in the first place.
Although he rode the crest of the New Wave explosion to prominence in 1977, Elvis Costello has never been an artist to limit himself. Over the course of the last six years. Elvis has dabbled with such wide-ranging musical forms as country, full-fledged rock and roll, string-filled jazzy pop and now a more mainstream version of pop rock thanks to the aural touches of producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.
Some listeners may not think that Punch the Clock is quite on a par with last year's stunning Imperial Bedroom, but, Elvis and his Attractions are still as appealing as ever.
Of the 13 selections included on the album, not one is thrown in as filler — every song is worth listening to, which isn't true on most albums recorded these days. Langer and Winstanley have added a number of flourishes that make Punch the Clock the appealing record that it is — namely the solid sound of the TKO Horns, a rich string arrangement by David Bedford and some fine backup vocals by Caron and Claudia Fontaine.
Side one opens with "Let Them All Talk," a bright, brassy rocker that sets the tone for the duration of the album. While the sound on last year's Imperial Bedroom was a bit subdued, the forceful sound of the Attractions — Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums and the endlessly-inventive Steve Nieve on keyboards — is in the forefront this time around, making for a pleasurable listening experience.
The rest of side one, "Everyday I Write The Book," "The Greatest Thing," "The Element Within Her," "Love Went Mad," and "Shipbuilding" are all upbeat and bright, with the exception of "Shipbuilding." A hit in England last year for Robert Wyatt, "Shipbuilding" is a beautiful, almost melancholic chronicle of a town where war is about to cure the unemployment problem. A plaintive trumpet solo by Chet Baker helps get the lyric's simple message across.
Langer and Winstanley are currently on a roll — they produced hits by both Dexy's Midnight Runners and Madness earlier this year, and the first single from Punch the Clock, "Everyday I Write The Book," is the first Costello single to crack Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
Side two is just as exciting as side one, with "T.K.O. (Boxing Day)," "The Invisible Man," and "The World And Wife" serving as the most interesting tracks. The haunting "Pills and Soap," another song about the agony of war, is perhaps the album's most powerful song with its ominous sound. On "The World And His Wife," Costello turns in a performance that rivals the passion and intensity of Bruce Springsteen.
On a scale from 1 to 10, Punch the Clock deserves a 9½.