Pop success, as somebody once should have said, comes like electricity in alternating end direct currents. After the first three albums, Elvis Costello's sparkling career short-circuited and it is now fashionable to lament how his popularity has diminished as his music, concerns and attitude improved and broadened and he became the pop star who is not very popular. Of course, this is only pert of the story.
Last year, Costello's singles actually spent more weeks in the charts than anyone else's, albeit in the lower regions of the Top Thirty. This year's album Punch The Clock, (F. Beat) already has three hit singles to its credit. Imperial Bedroom was an Album-Of-The-Year contender, an album without highlights only because it was so consistently good, but in terms of wider popularity both singles and album were a king way from the gold of "Oliver's Army" and Armed Forces.
Last year, also, he expressed doubts both as to whether he would every make another record and, if so, whether he would use his 'own' name. That name, which was initially a large pert of his making, had become something from which everyone from Michael Jackson to Rough Trade were backing off. To some extent Declan McManus has reaped what he sowed. The early Elvis Costello may have had fun screwing triple vodkas out of the rock press he was rubbing up the wrong way but it would take more than one "Elvis Costello Repents" issue of Rolling Stone to explain away the Ray Charles incident as just the vodka talking.
If the sophisticated and focused Imperial Bedroom satisfied Elvis's Army who understood what he was about and paid attention, Punch The Clock is a swipe at attracting wider interest. It may not prove to be the album to do so.
Costello acknowledges that he has a hack mentality on the other side from the one that he takes very seriously; but the line between these mentalities is not always as clear-cut as he perhaps would like to think it is. His talent often seems too diffuse to be wilfully accommodated within "soul" or "country" albums but Punch The Clock suffers as an album, despite the unity of its Langer/Winstanly production and the playing unity from the as always excellent Attractions, from en often disconcerting lack of focus.
The numbers dominated by the TKO horns are of varying quality and the often uninspired brass lines tend to be attached to equally uninspired choruses. "TKO (Boxing Day)" is frankly boring and only on "The Invisible Man" are the horns completely effective. "The World And His Wife," in itself is quite unremarkable, is doubly unimpressive as it gaily follows the deadly serious "Pills And Soap." The other "serious" track on the album, "Shipbuilding," is superb, with a great Chet Baker trumpet solo, and the only song here that could fit easily onto Imperial Bedroom.
"King Of Thieves" and "Everyday I Write The Book" show Elvis up to his old verbal tricks. The latter has particularly interesting backing vocals but despite its strong melody and snappy guitar does not seem to be addressed, like most classic pop songs, to anyone or anything beyond its own ingenuity. Of the tracks that approximate to pop classics, the most successful are "The Element Within Her" with its Byrds harmonies and "Love Went Mad" on which Steve Nieve's tinkling piano hints that he or Elvis may may have been listening to Bowie's "Without You."
As a live show, Punch The Clock will work. Anyone who saw the recent Costello concert at the stadium will know that, live, his diffuse talents and facets rest easily alongside each other. But listening to them on reward is often a chore that perhaps only his Task Force fans well he willing to undertake.