It's common knowledge by now among the listening public that Elvis Costello has grown up. With his ninth album, Punch the Clock, Costello at 28 has completed his troubled journey from persona to person.
Punch the Clock is a typically Costello album in that it is not really like anything he has put on vinyl before. Gone on this record are the last vestiges of the bitter; misanthropic exterior that characterized much of his earlier work. Last summer's Imperial Bedroom exorcised most of that exterior, which Costello now says was a big act anyway. In its place there is actually perceptible a measure of genuine warmth.
Hard to believe? Well, don't be fooled. Beneath the "la la la la" of "The Element Within Her" or the Burt Bacharach stylings of "Charm School" is an underlying tension and uneasiness that has made Costello the most intriguing lyricist on the pop scene today. What is different is the musical settings Costello chooses to couch these lyrics in.
For Punch the Clock Costello has added a horn section — the TKO Horns — and, on some of the cuts, the backing vocals of Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine — Afrodiziak — who were last heard on the Jam's farewell EP. In combination with Costello's superb backing trio the Attractions (Bruce Thomas, bass; Pete Thomas, drums; Steve Nieve, keyboards) and a few other guest artists, this aggregation gives Punch the Clock perhaps the best sound of any of Costello's previous recordings.
The record's first cut, "Let Them All Talk," gives a first hint at the loosely followed theme that runs through the album and reveals what Costello means by punching the clock. Punch the Clock is not a cliched celebration of the working man or Costello's attempt to be a regular guy; instead, it is a Metaphor for growing older, for growing up, After "Everyday I Write the Book," which has been released as a single and a video, "The Greatest Thing" picks up on the metaphor again when Costello, who has apparently hammered out a peace agreement with himself and society, sings "I punch the clock and it's OK."
Another song in this vein is "TKO (Boxing Day)" on side two, in which three interpretations of the punching metaphor are inferred. Along with the general "punch the clock" theme are the pugilistic images conveyed in the lyrics about a troubled relationship between husband and wife ("Whenever I feel so amorous / I can count you out"), and, at the same time, the quite different imagery associated with Boxing Day, the day after Christmas and traditionally the day for gift-giving among British servants.
The two songs or this LP that will stand out the most for many listeners are "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap" — both about the Falkland Islands war in 1982. These songs are every bit as charged with anger as Costello standards like, "Pump It Up" or "Mystery Dance" and perhaps even more so. They are. different, though, because they illustrate what the mature Costello has learned: in getting a message or social comment across, less is often more.
"Shipbuilding" is a haunting look at the irony of a small seaport town which stands to be rescued from economic doldrums by the coming war and demand for shipbuilding: "Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards / and notifying the next of kin."
"Pills and Soap," in which Costello is accompanied only by Nieve on keyboards and a constant finger-snapping sound, contrasts a television interview with the family of a war casualty and tabloid fluff about "Lord and Lady Muck."
While not equal to his 1982 masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom, Costello's Punch the Clock is a fine record, and probably the most palatable and best-received of his albums by the general public. This album gives the listener a feeling of satisfaction similar to that of completing a good novel — proof that punching the clock has enhanced, rather than diminished, Costello's songwriting skill.