Elvis Costello delivers another seemingly effortless collection of pop tunes on Punch The Clock (F-Beat VPL1 7461); another year, another album — perhaps not quite up to the standard of last year's Imperial Bedroom but there are some gems among the 13 new tracks.
To the Attractions (Steve Nieve, keyboards; Bruce Thomas, bass; Pete Thomas, drums) he has added a four-man horn section, two black female backing vocalists and the percussion of Morris Pert. Their brash and brassy sound opens the album powerfully with "Let Them All Talk," an uptempo rocker with a soul-edge and ironic use of lyrical cliches which is equally effective on the bitter "TKO (Boxing Day)."
Costello's words are clever and cynical but they do clutter up the songs. He even appears to parody this tendency on "Mouth Almighty." There are at least half a dozen potential singles, including the first two mentioned, plus the Bo-Diddley-paced "The Greatest Thing" with casually blended acoustic guitars and brass) and the closing "The World And His Wife" (an upbeat pop arrangement contrasting with some stinging lyrics).
I also liked the parody, both instrumental and verbal, of the cinema addict in "The Invisible Man."
The media comes in for some flak on "Pills And Soap," a stark vignette of manipulation and jingoism; the Falklands war theme is central to "Shipbuilding," a slow-swinging song with a glowing trumpet solo by jazz-man Chet Baker, Nieve's rich piano and a superb string arrangement by David Bedford that swirls eerily on the fade-out.
The album title suggests a casual, mechanical approach to songwriting, which I don't believe for one minute. There are few pop composers to match Costello and many who would sell their souls for a fraction of his ability. And the music lasts for 45 minutes — which is 20 minutes more than Neil Young managed on his latest LP.