It's an expansive, ingratiating Elvis Costello that emerges on Punch the Clock. The
album, Costello's ninth in the U.S., has a swaggering tunefulness that has been brought to the surface by producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, whose recent Top 10 hits (Madness's "Our House," Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come on Eileen") show a talent for getting to a melodic hook, using horns for jabbing emphasis. Costello even does last year's excellent Imperial Bedroom one better in the accessibility department by printing the lyrics neatly on the inner sleeve rather than in run-on chunks. But if he's more forthcoming than usual, he's no less combative, still seething about emotional injustice and political insensitivity.
Punch the Clock contains two recent Costello political songs that are chilling and gray: "Shipbuilding," which he introduced on his '82 tour and has since been recorded by Robert Wyatt, is an extraordinary piece (written with Langer) that skewers England for its jingoism and economic rationales during the Falkland Islands conflict; and "Pills and Soap," released under a
pseudonym (the Imposter) during the last British elections, warns against the continuation of the Thatcher government.
While these two tracks are the most riveting, the new LP is composed of more than grim commentary. There is writing, even in the acerbic songs about men and women at cross-purposes, that demonstrates what Costello has learned from Motown songwriters — who built countless hits on extended metaphors and the imaginative use of everyday phrases — and from the sophisticated rhymers of the pre-WW2 New York lyricists (Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin). The drawing of a family reunion with scandalous undercurrents on "The World and His Wife," the rapid-fire verbiage about modern matrimony on "The Greatest Thing," and the deceptive simplicity of "The Element Within Her" are all brittle and intelligent; and "Everyday I Write the Book," on which Costello describes in literary terms the vigilant monitoring of a lover, is as irresistible a pop song as he has written.
Costello is, as ever, quotable ("Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal / I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel"), but Punch the Clock — a brassier expansion of the soul influenced Get Happy!! — isn't all wordplay. It's filled with inspired instrumental touches: the TKO horns opening the proceedings with a fanfare on "Let Them All Talk"; Steve Nieve's invaluable keyboard contributions throughout; Chet Baker's funereal trumpet solo on "Shipbuilding"; the cavernous drums on "The Greatest Thing"; the gothic-funk atmosphere on "Pills and Soap." On Punch the Clock, Elvis Costello and the Attractions are making rock that has an arresting outer layer and a tough moral center. "I'm a man with a mission in two or three editions," Costello sings. You'd be wise to snap up this chapter in what has been unfolding, over the past six years, as a significant story in contemporary music.