A lot of people — and this reviewer pleads guilty — want Elvis Costello to remain stuck in amber circa 1977-1983. It's unfair, of course. The knock-kneed motormouth punched out a remarkable run of records that grew out of punk but were way too smart to be confined by it. From collaborating with Burt Bacharach to writing a ballet score, he's always thumbed his nose at straitjackets.
Recorded in Helsinki, Paris and New York, Hey Clockface is a sometimes disjointed experience. "No Flag" uses Tom Waits-ian junkyard percussion and distortion to drive sneering lines such as, "No God for the damn that I don't give"; "Byline" is a gorgeously wrought kiss-off ballad where old letters house painful memories. On the title track's show-tune shadings, he does his best imitation of his old hero Randy Newman, while the thump-and-crunch of "Hetty O'Hara Confidential" crosses Dylan-esque syntax with rap-like delivery.
Between the blooms there are weeds: blousy spoken-word poetry over brooding orchestration, a convoluted ballad or two where his voice cracks and creaks. But even when he fails to take flight, he continues to avoid being pinned down.