To try and review Elvis Costello's Punch The Clock (CBS) after living with the album for less than a week is like describing the Encyclopedia Britannica after glancing through the index. The man's music speaks volumes.
There are things you notice right away. Horns, for instance. Female back-up singers, too; both surfacing as an integral part of the music for the first time in Costello's prolific, quicksilver nine-album career.
They contribute to the bright, punchy, soulful sound and to the cluttered feeling the album gives off if you're listening to it on a Mickey Mouse set of speakers.
With enough space to breathe, however, these same arrangements work marvellously; they're clever without being cute, careful but not contrived, and wonderfully alive. Kudos to producers Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer (of Madness and Dexy's Midnight Runners fame) for the hot-blooded results.
Which sets the listener free to hunker down on Costello and the Attractions. a full-time occupation. and one of the few jobs where you can't wait to punch in.
For starters, this is Costello's most accessible album. Nothing is sonically abrasive, and the angry young vocal snarl of, say, 1978's punk-influenced Armed Forces, has matured into one of the richest, most expressive and flexible voices in rock.
Stylistically, loosely-interpreted Big Band predominates on cuts like the backhandedly optimistic "The World And His Wife," cool '50s club jazz slides over the right and righteous indignation of Pills And Soap, and tie soul-funk connection makes songs like "T.K.O. (Boxing Day)" and "Let Them All Talk" as good as unashamedly white soul music gets.
Then there's the clever pop that Costello knocks off in the shower, brassy Bo Diddley, some edgy rock, and at least two ballads to bring you to your emotional knees. "Shipbuilding" is one of them, last mentioned here when reviewing Robert Wyatts' achingly delicate version of this song. Costello's treatment here is richer, lent texture by the legendary Chet Baker's haunting trumpet solo and Steve Nieve's cathedral Hammond B 3, and absolutely devastating.
That's the easy stuff. Lyrically, Costello is so fine, so clever and so layered in meaning I won't attempt to pin down his drift for a month or two. Suffice to say he's lost none of his bite — "Pills And Soap," "Charm School" and half a dozen others burn like acid on an open wound — while gradually opening up the secrets of his heart, Some find Costello wordy. I find him wise way beyond his years.