The key to enjoying Elvis Costello is understanding his lyrics. He loves wordplay: internal rhymes, puns and unexpected twists. No moon-June-spoon-croon for him.
Consequently, when you have to ask yourself "What does this song mean?" his Sunday punch is lost. And so it is too often on Punch the Clock.
Yes, there is some clever wordplay, notably in the extended metaphor "Everyday I Write the Book" and in "The Greatest Thing," a cynical look at love ("Since nights were long and days were olden woman to man has been beholden, but since then times have been changing. She sends back his tribute of a rose and says this ring is better suited for the nose he's always fingering.").
"Pills and Soap" takes random shots at callous TV news reporters and British society ("The king is the counting house, some folk have all the luck. And all we get are pictures of Lord and Lady Muck"), yet its thematic vagueness makes it far less hard-hitting than, say, the Beatles' "Taxman" or Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry."
"The World and His Wife" is family reunions at their worst: "The family circle gather round from very far and near to pass around the same remarks they passed away last year. The kissing cousins slip outside to cuddle and confess… the conversation melts like chocolate down their open jaws." But the choruses make no sense at all.
So it goes with the rest of Punch the Clock. It's puzzle time, and that hurts because Costello and his backing trio, the Attractions, certainly play well enough, although his voice is thick-toned and his diction sometimes careless.
Costello's fun in concert, that's for sure, but his aim isn't very true on this disc. For diehard fans only.