Elvis Costello, who is widely regarded as the most important singer-songwriter to come out of the English new wave, finally has his very first American hit. "Everyday I Write the Book," from his ninth album, Punch the Clock, is No. 48 on Billboard's Hot 100 and climbing. The song, which plays off the Monotones' 1958 doo-wop hit "Book of Love," is an irresistible compendium of allusive pop hooks and verbal sharpshooting.
"Everyday I Write the Book," like the rest of Punch the Clock, probably represents the frothiest, most accessible pop music Mr. Costello has ever recorded. Yet his album, which follows Imperial Bedroom, his brooding conceptual masterwork about sexual warfare, has received only a mixed critical reception. "We deliberately went in to make a record that the critics hated but that sold lots," Mr. Costello said — half-jokingly — over the phone the other day from Colorado, where he and his band, the Attractions, were performing. "The title Punch the Clock has the double meaning of working and of stopping time," Mr. Costello said. " 'Everyday I Write the Book' was modeled after Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On,' with a guitar lick derived from his 'Sexual Healing.'"
If Punch the Clock lacks the grand organizational unity of Mr. Costello's last album, almost every cut on the record offers surprising textural contrasts that sound commercial but not cliched. The album's rich musical vocabulary embraces several 1960's soul styles, late Beatles psychedelia and cool jazz, among many other idioms — compacting and juxtaposing these allusions with a dazzling sleight of hand. Thus, if everything sounds familiar, it also sounds fresh.
The album's centerpiece is the pop-jazz ballad "Shipbuilding," for which Mr. Costello wrote lyrics to a melody by his producer, Clive Langer. A meditation on the effects of the Falkland Islands crisis on an English seacoast village, the song paints a poignant picture of people anticipating war with a guilty excitement:
It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls."
Mr. Costello's vocal performance is a tour-de-force of foggy jazz balladry, and a wistful trumpet solo by Chet Baker exquisitely underscores the mood.
"Shipbuilding" is one of many songs on the album in which the arrangements illustrate the songs in a way that gives them a new emotional resonance and subtlety. "Pills and Soap" sees television's intrusions on private grief as emblematic of a societal coldness. Its stiff-upper-lip marching tune disintegrates into an insidiously dissonant piano coda. "The central image of the song came from a horrific film I saw about the misuse of animals," Mr. Costello recalled. "Pills and soap were listed among the by-products of melting down animals, and I projected that bleak image onto the human animal and filled in the details."
The album's lighter songs are chock full of fascinating musical puzzle pieces. "The Greatest Thing" juxtaposes a Bo Diddley motif with quotes from the introduction of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." While the horns in "T.K.O" and "Let Them All Talk" have the sound of 1960's soul records, they're also used like fanfares in a court masque, formally framing the material. "King of Thieves" and "The Element Within Her," songs that describe paranoia in the bedroom and in the office, use flashes of Beatles-style psychedelia to evoke secret fears as well as idyllic fantasies.
On Punch the Clock, as well as in his recent concert performances that use a horn section to flesh out older songs, Mr. Costello's musical eclecticism extends far beyond the conventional boundaries of rock. "I hate rock, but I love rock-and-roll," Mr. Costello emphasized the other day. "Rock-and-roll is Jerry Lee Lewis, and rock is Loverboy. I'm not taking a retrogressive step and seeking to revive anything, but I think it's foolish to cut yourself off from anything that's interesting and that has emotional resonance, whether it came before rock-and-roll or appeared this week. What's wrong with rock is that it's so limited. It feeds only on itself, and that's why it's eventually going to disappear."
In the six years since his arrival on the pop scene, Elvis Costello has metamorphosed from an angry post-punk rebel, spitting venom in angry, stripped-down songs with frenetic tinny arrangements, into a pop composer and singer for whom "warmth" and "sincerity" are the most cherishable pop values. "It's easy to bluster," Mr. Costello scoffed. "It's not so easy to do something quietly, from the heart."