Elvis Costello played what turned out to be the last major concert in London before lockdown, taking to the stage at Hammersmith Apollo in mid-March despite empty seats betraying public nervousness at the approaching pandemic. "If it's our time, it's gonna come some day, so we might as well enjoy ourselves," the then 65-year-old announced, delivering a rip-roaring set encompassing punk, jazz, dub and rock 'n' roll. The next day, Costello's tour was cancelled, and he flew to Vancouver to hunker down with wife, pianist Diana Krall, and their two sons.
Having just recovered from cancer, Costello has evidently taken Covid quarantine seriously. But he kept working on a new album, the 31st of a career spanning five decades, recorded in short pre-lockdown sessions in Helsinki and Paris, then completed via the internet with musicians in New York.
Hey Clockface is the perhaps inevitably messy, heartfelt infuriating and often fantastic result. Its 14 overloaded songs jostle awkwardly together in a baffling cornucopia of conflicting impulses, shifting from beat-boxing punk to beatnik poetry, ambient moodiness to sophisticated showtunes, peppered with snappy couplets and gilded with gorgeous melodies. There are songs here of towering rage (splenetic punk anthem "No Flag" and burning anti-war tragedy "Newspaper Pane") and moving despair (dark ballad "They're Not Laughing At Me Now," and tender lament "I Do") the highlights of Hey Clockface being as impactful as any in Costello's abundant back catalogue.
Yet they don't quite align with the excitable title track's agitated accumulation of time-based puns ("Hey Clockface, keep your fingers on the dial") and jazz rap "Hetty O'Hara Confidential," songs so jammed with arcane language ("a gentleman caller to a comely wench / And a snooping peeper in a coat of trench") and antique instrumentation that they might have been culled from a pastiche Thirties musical, with Costello over-excitedly scatting the trumpet parts. All of the above are strung together with dense spoken-word pieces set to moody noir soundtracks, like Brian Eno channelling Bernard Herrmann at a punk poetry slam.
On close examination of the credits, it seems the punchier material was recorded with Costello playing all instruments in Helsinki, the jazzier songs were mainly recorded in Paris with an improvising ensemble led by long-serving keyboard player, Steve Nieve, and the spoken links were concocted long-distance with New York producer Michael Leonhart. Costello was forced to cancel sessions in London with his band The Imposters and producer Nick Lowe that might have bound his diverse songcraft together. But needs must. And Costello clearly needed to make himself heard.
If the results are all a bit too much, Costello's hot mess of an album essentially embodies the same defiant spirit as that last west London concert. This is music as a last line of defence against silence. As Costello jokes on the intense and sinister "We Are All Cowards Now" (a spooky articulation of powerlessness in the face of impending disaster) "at least the Emperor Nero had an ear for music." Hey Clockface is the sound of a great singer-songwriter fiddling while the world burns.