Way back when, there reached a point when rock 'n' roll heroes became men with gigantic "personalities" and egos to match. The Jaggers, the Stewarts and the Pages were the men who would be kings. These men were there to be adulated, praised and only looked up to. And that was the problem. These gods who were supposedly the heart and soul of rock 'n' roll had become so used to being put on a pedestal that they forgot that they were meant to be like you and me. There was no doubt about it — things had to change.
Then suddenly, there he was, coming out of an obscure label called Stiff, staring menacingly, bowlegged from his first album cover. No one was safe from this sad-looking creature — Elvis Costello was taking aim against everything and that aim proved to be all too true.
Why should Beat the Clock be more successful than some of Elvis Costello's previous ventures? Asking that very question leads us into a whole other realm of topics; I find myself wanting to discuss the evolution of the artist, the necessary changes, the search for the right outlet and so on and so on. And actually, thinking about it, that might not be such a bad idea.
As mentioned, Costello made quite a splash upon his arrival and maintained that level of exposure right through to his third album Armed Forces. Then something happened. He seemed to become disenchanted, his next three albums, including his not-as-country-as-most-people-believe Almost Blue, seemed to delve him further and further into self-imposed obscurity.
This exile cost him public recognition, especially with last year's Imperial Bedroom which received critical acclaim but didn't get any of the popular support it so rightfully deserved. Part of Elvis' problem is that he has often been a victim of his own verbosity — his usual three-minute songs are packed full of words that often ship off the sides.
His songs in some ways can be compared to the Doonesbury comic strip — some people look at Garry Trudeau's strips and see too many words to be bothered with. Many popsters often approach or disregard Costello's work due to the same attitude. So the music suffers simply due to the stress that Elvis is putting on the listener to pay attention to the word lyrics.
However, he seems to have managed to avoid some of these pitfalls in his latest effort, Punch the Clock, which may account for some of the success he is now enjoying or avoiding. The Elvis Costello of 1983 is not the '77 model any longer — he is a man who seems much more in control though his words are still as sharp and as vitriolic (yes, it's a well-worn adjective but in the case of this man, the word applies, completely) as ever.
Punch the Clock could have been released earlier but for the fact that there were legal delays. Warner Brothers, the distributors for F-Beat in England, were taking their time in re-negotiating a contract. So much so that Costello released a single "Pills and Soap" under the name The Imposter.
The sense of urgency with which he sometimes releases his material shows just where philosophy of pop/rock lies. He is a man of the moment and always has been, and nothing exemplifies this better than the song just mentioned:
The king is in the counting house
Some folks have all the luck
And all we get are pictures of
Lord and Lady Muck
They come from lovely people
with a hard line in hypocrisy
There are ashtrays of emotion
for the fag end of the aristocracy
These lyrics remind one of something John Osborne might have written in the late '50's, and they remain as applicable now as they did then. One can just see the Windsors having signed a contract with the Press — "we'll continually supply you with pictures and stories concerning the Saga of Charles and Diana and maybe, just maybe, the peasants will forget their troubles, or stop thinking about what life is really like in a Thatcherite State."
As Costello writes:
The sugar coated pill is getting bitterer still
You think your country needs you
but you know it never will
So pack up your troubles in a stolen handbag
Don't dilly-dally boys, rally round the flag
Give us our daily bread in individual slices
And something in the daily rag to cancel any crises.
His albums have always basically dealt with the same themes; domination, heartbreak which verges on physical pain, and of course the ever-popular subject of the monotony of daily life. One often has the temptation in reviewing a Costello album to simply print out the lyric sheet so that the reader knows precisely what one is talking about.
The album does have its weaknesses. As mentioned, he occasionally lets the music get away from him when he concentrates too hard on his words. Aside from "Let Them All Talk" and "Everyday I Write the Book," which are getting fairly extensive airplay, there are other tracks that are good.
"Shipbuilding" is a song Costello wrote along with Clive Hanges for Robert Wyatt as a protest against the Falklands War — aside from being a well-written piece, it contains a lovely trumpet solo by jazz great Chet Baker. There is the aforementioned "Pills and Soap" as well as "The World and his Wife," a song where he is at his sharpest and wittiest (and nothing beats a sharp, witty Costello):
To tell the truth our Mum ran off with someone else's father
Went for two weeks holiday in Taramasalata
Daddy went out with the rubbish and he kept on walking
Between Mum and the walls God only knows who does the talking.
Costello is no less than a modern popular poet and as such deserves to reach a wider audience. He seems to have achieved this, at least partially, with Punch the Clock. The success which should have welcomed Imperial Bedroom has simply taken a little longer to come, that's all. No matter, Elvis is a patient and prolific man — the world has not seen the last of him, in fact they'll probably hear him everyday.