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.
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.
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."