Elvis Costello may have made the perfect pop single with "Oliver's Army" and the perfect Pop LP with Imperial Bedroom, but according to the rather ludicrous rules of this particular game, a pop star who isn't really all that popular is no star at all.
This fear permeated last year's NME interview, and there's little doubt that Punch The Clock tries to rectify that situation with a few judicious changes of emphasis. So we get the TKO horns, the Afrodiziak singers, plus a Langer/Winstanley polish production — and, indeed, the result is the brightest, bounciest record Elvis has done since Armed Forces. If Punch The Clock is a step back from the stunning sophistication of Imperial Bedroom, perhaps it’s also a step toward pop survival. Even the title has a snappy, back-to-work ring to it.
It helps, too, that the LP contains three hit singles. In that NME interview, Elvis admitted that he'd even thought of changing his name if it meant he'd get through to more people. I put that down to paranoia, but it's a curious fact that of the three hits here — "Shipbuilding," "Pills And Soap," "Everyday I Write The Book" — only the latter came out under his own name, and that was the least successful of the three.
By another strange twist, "Everyday" is the simplest, least political of the trio; so the standard critical notion that people shy away from Costello's "seriousness" or "complexity" appears to be a bit leaky.
Nevertheless, Elvis' "problem" probably does lie in this area. In his own words: "It's very difficult to balance the two things, because on one hand you make serious records but on the other you've got to be in competition with Haircut 100."
The notion of pop as a vehicle for "serious records" has been unfashionable in recent years (at least, so far as white pop is concerned); and given pop's parameters, the balance Costello talks about must always have been difficult to maintain. It is especially so now. With the real world looking so grim, a music that tries to reflect some aspect of that and also give you a good time is likely to break apart with the strain. It's an ominous and not entirely coincidental sign that the groups who a few years back were successfully holding that balance have recently either split up — Specials, Fun Boy Three, Jam, Beat — or virtually disappeared — UB40. (Is this another unforeseen devastation wreaked by Thatcherism?)
Given then that one of pop's main goals must be popularity, Punch The Clock makes all the right moves. I do miss the spaciousness and relaxed poise of Imperial Bedroom, but there's no denying that Punch The Clock is indeed punchy, and that it inhabits one area — uptempo party pop — which Bedroom did neglect.
It also includes — of course! — Costello's protean qualities: here are 13 tracks brimful of witty wordplay, extended metaphor, and teasing echoes of pop history, from obvious Beatles to obscure Lewis Furey. There's also mystery aplenty — if anyone has a clue as to what "King Of Thieves" is about, please send me a postcard — and a hatful of insanely catchy tunes which drive you barmy when you're trying to get to sleep.
The LP opens with a bustling horn riff on "Let Them All Talk" and proceeds in a likewise manner on tracks like "The Greatest Thing," "TKO," "The Invisible Man," "The World And His Wife." There's a love of Stax lurking behind these tracks, but no attempt to replicate that prowling horn style: this is a breezy, whiteboy funk; high on zest, low on atmosphere, and given a clean, 'compressed' sound by the producers. I'm not complaining — the brilliant musical drive of tracks like "TKO" and "The Invisible Man" is one of the LP's chief strengths. There are pretty diversions' too, like the classic '60s harmonies of "The Element Within Her," but excepting only "Shipbuilding" and "Pills And Soap," the sound of Punch The Clock is a bright, attractive, streamline pop, rendered superbly by The Attractions.
The skull beneath this skin, the other scale in the balance, comes with the lyrics. It's been a long time since Elvis played the pseudo-psycho, knotted up with guilt, about to burst with rage; but his later perspectives are no less bleak. Rather, that he now presents them with calmness and compassion makes them that much more chilling. Punch The Clock comes with a thick coating of black humour, but it's a pretty desperate view of affairs that breaks through in "Pills And Soap" or in lines like "Never mind there's a good film showing tonight / Where they hang everybody who can read and write / Oh that could never happen here but then again it might" ("The Invisible Man"). In fact, from the icy contours of "Charm School" to the savage spoofery of "The World And His Wife" and beyond, Elvis isn't pulling any punches.
He does try to lighten his acidic side with more personal, more allusive songs, and with that glittering pop production. Maybe he's overdone it; there's a faintly manic air to some of the music, and on one song at least ("The World And His Wife") the jollity of the knees-up horn riff — even though you could argue it's supposed to sound forced — just doesn't ring true. Neither do "Love Went Mad" or "Mouth Almighty," each coming with awkwardly disparate verse and chorus.
I wonder if Elvis hasn't sacrificed a degree of emotional resonance in his bid for pop acceptability. A final irony would be that "Pills And Soap" and "Shipbuilding," his two recent hits are the songs here that most patently do not make those compromises. "Shipbuilding" may be the best thing he's written, and his version — reflective where Robert Wyatt's is plaintive – is the LP's finest moment. A song which does justice to the complex tragedy of its subject, it's indebted here to a beautifully terse, mournful trumpet solo by Chet Baker which, at one memorable point, is given just a touch of spine-tingling echo.
What it boils down to is that Punch The Clock is a new direction for Elvis — a necessary change that, by and large, he pulls off with aplomb. He's still the best songwriter in the country, and that's one thing Punch The Clock hasn't changed.
So it's a hit, but not quite a knockout. What I miss about the LP — Imperial Bedroom's luxurious sense of space and time — is the price he has to pay for keeping that "difficult balance” between two aspects and aspirations of pop that are currently flying further apart.
These are tough times, but this is one LP which rides the punches and comes back fighting. Three cheers for Elvis Costello, the great contender!