Elvis Costello, the soul singer?
Well, not exactly, but this Britisher who has been called New Wave's "angry young man" plays around with some soulful motifs on his new album, Punch the Clock (Columbia).
The result is not really unpleasant. The record is, surprisingly, quite a bit of fun at times.
Punch the Clock probably is 'his most pop-oriented album and thus is more likely to garner expanded exposure and appeal. It already has spawned a hit single, "Everyday I Write the Book," potential for many more.
While remaining as lyrically elusive as ever, Costello may have managed to win some new fans, at least for now. Those listeners, however, more likely swayed by Costello's music than by his lyrical meanderings. Attempting to decipher Costello's word games and figure out just exactly what he is trying to say can be a monumental undertaking.
The new album is another flirtation with a strictly American musical genre, soul.
Along with his usual highly-competent accompanying band, the Attractions, Costello has added female background singers and a wailing horn section.
Most of the tunes, regardless of their lyrical tone , are performed in an effervescent, upbeat fashion. Jerky, bouncy, sometimes funky, rhythms make the tunes seem to jump off the grooves, and Costello manages to transcend his normal vocal limitations on a few of the tracks.
Costello generates a lively sound and feel which is normally a sure bet to attract listeners and sell records. Only his most loyal followers are going to buy the disc for the word play.
The LP takes off with an uptempo, repeated lick from saxes and brass horns on "Let Them All Talk." Costello includes a lot of playful rhythmic devices and some gospel-style background singers to accentuate the soul feel.
The main theme of "Write the Book" is dreamy by Costello standards, as is his upper register crooning at the beginning and close of the tune. The chorus. which once again makes use of call-and-response female voices, is mildly funky.
"The Greatest Thing," another Side One cut, might pass for play on Soul Train, with its explosive drum percussion blast and strong funky beat, accentuated by bassist Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve on piano.
Those who try to decipher Costello's lyrics as they listen would have an extra-hard time on this one, as he spews out the running lines in rapid-fire, non-stop syllables (It's a good thing the lyrics are included in the liner notes!).
The next two tunes, "The Element Within Her" and "Love Went Mad," are upbeat and hook-laden, but quite a contrast is created by the slow and bluesy "Shipbuilding," which closes the first side.
The lyrics to "Shipbuilding" seem totally impenetrable until one finds out the song is about a British community and how it is affected by last year's Falklands war.
The local economy of the shipbuilding town is given a shot in the arm by the country's new military commitment, but, Costello asks, "Is it worth it, a new winter coat and shoes for the wife? And a bicycle on the boy's birthday?"
The words are delivered softly and somberly over a slow, melancholy backdrop. "We will be shipbuilding," he sings, "with all the will in the world, diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls." The mellow trumpet solo by Chet Baker which accompanies the singer is breathtaking.
Side Two opens with more soul play, emphasizing the big horn sound and chorus of "TKO (Boxing Day)," the heavy accentuation and rich string-backed texture of "Charm School" and the blaring horns and musical mood switches of "Invisible Man."
Some clever Costello lyrics which are easy to understand, and also be a confession of sorts, are on "Mouth Almighty." In this song, the singer laments how his inability to curb his tongue has cost him a hot romance.
"I know I've got my faults," he admits, "and among them I can't control my tongue. But if you didn't believe me, why did you leave me with my mouth almighty?"
Costello's well-documented anger only pops up occasionally (apparently) on this LP, on tunes like "Charm School" and the Falklands-inspired "Pills and Soap."
Costello's musical statements appear to make more sense on this new LP, which can still be enjoyed even if the words are unclear.
Musically, one senses Elvis Costello is continuing to grow. Lyrically, who can tell?