Phew, for a moment there I thought the penny wasn't going to drop in time. Luckily, after a further batch of circumnavigations of the turntable, Punch The Clock stands revealed as Costello's hardest-hitting collection of songs in a while, probably since Get Happy!!. Rumour has it that this isn't a finished pressing, but you could have fooled me.
This isn't just because Clock picks up where Get Happy!! left off, with its brassy R&B overtones and assured melodic concision. More, it's to do with this new LP's winning marriage of playful musical imagination rigorously harnessed to a batch of lyrics which find Costello's ability to blow a hole through the heart of the matter at 30 paces burning at maximum intensity.
Discussing Clock on The Kid's radio show the other night, Elvis confided that he felt Imperial Bedroom had thrust voice and lyrics too far forward, leaving them standing naked and apart from the musical scenery. The new one, therefore, seeks to restore the balance, using Costello's voice more instrumentally in a fuller musical context balanced by the hard-hitting TKO Horns and the aggressive supporting voices of Afrodiziak girls Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine.
You can, of course, take the expertise of The Attractions for granted these days, and it's shown to the full on a song like "The Element Within Her." It's basically just them and Elvis grabbing hold of a song of exhilarating directness and letting its bittersweet lyric and clear-sighted melodic construction run full tilt from starting gun to finishing tape. Where Imperial Bedroom often wallowed low in the water under its top-heavy superstructure of grandiose arrangements and encyclopedic lyrics, Punch The Clock draws up a short-list of priorities and nails them with ruthless efficiency.
Costello's range of targets is bewildering. "Pills And Soap" is here to put a banana skin under the popular press and the aristocracy, "King Of Thieves" is a suggestive compilation of film noir motifs which apparently came to Elvis in a dream, family life is ripped open and thrown out with the bathwater in "The World And His Wife" ("The conversation melts like chocolate down their open jaws / As the juniper berry slips down just like last night's drawers") and in "The Invisible Man" I suspect Costello is baring as much of his soul as we'll ever see when he says "I want to be like Harry Houdini".
You don't review records like this, you just let them hit you like a fire-hose and do your best to work with what's left. For instance, Costello's own version of "Shipbuilding" sparks off so many possible reactions you just have to pick one and sit with it for a while — bitter? Sad? Regretful? Accusatory? Compassionate? It's probably easiest simply to let Chet Baker's perfectly poised trumpet commentaries say it all — agony was rarely this exquisite, futility never so poetic.
So many buttons are being pushed here that it'll take months to assimilate them all, so I'll just mention a couple and leave it all up to you. How about the vulgar bonhomie of the horns in "The World And His Wife" which twists the song from domestic tragedy to magnificent sick farce? It's so close to the bone that a disgusted belly-laugh is the only escape. Then there's the perfectly self-sealed literary conceit of "Everyday I Write The Book," indexed with its own cross-references to the point where love turns into art but only deserves to be soap opera. And then there are just flashes, like this hair-trigger couplet from "Love Went Mad" — "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef / I wish you luck with a capital "F".
Costello's lyrics are apparently being taught for O-level. Punch The Clock deserves a PhD.