For the first time, we have cause to wonder if Costello's band is misnamed. Goodness knows that on the 13 languid cuts that make up Punch the Clock he has them playing music that isn't attractive or even distracting but just plain boring. Costello is fundamentally too talented to be written up (or off) as second-rate or stupid, but since leaving slash and burn rock behind on Armed Forces he's been making albums that have been musically and conceptually blurry. With the exception of '80s' Taking Liberties, which was a collection of B sides, they've all been must buys only because Costello's innate songwriting talents have accounted for brilliant tunes like "Clowntime Is Over," "New Lace Sleeves," "Man Out of Time" and "Almost Blue." And if he wanted to wallow in murky, idiosyncratic production (Get Happy) or overstylized conceits (the bulk of Imperial Bedroom) it was worth forgiving him his shortcomings just to get those great songs.
However, Punch the Clock is virtually devoid of good material — it's full of afterthoughts built into sharps and flats. There are some nice spots — the moody, languorous "Shipbuilding" with the nice horn arrangements, or the taut, political "Pills and Soap" — but mostly it's Costello meandering through multichord arrangements that have been edited into songs. For the past three years he's been on this piano-lounge-with-jazz-phrasings-and-dips-into-other-styles jag, and as the new, largely indecipherable tunes slip past (indecipherable because a listener isn't motivated to pick through the constant stream of language plodding in tandem with the various dull, brass-heavy tunes), the listener finds himself yearning for the glorious old days of Elvis mad, Elvis getting in fights with Bonnie Raitt and Elvis writing songs that jerked the listener to attention. Perhaps when he makes his mid-September swing through Southern California he'll infuse this new material with life — for now we have to settle with what's the least consequential LP of his seven-year recording career.