The album begins with an ominous; middle-eastern sounding; spoken-word piece called "Revolution #49." It sets a melancholic tone for two minutes which is then swiftly shattered by the arrival of "No Flag," a synthesised protest song with a toothy, growling riff. Then, after that punch in the face, you're soothed by the cold-compress of "They're Not Laughing At Me Now," a plodding ballad that slightly reminds me of "Send In The Clowns" in a sort of contemplative show business way.
That's the theme of the album; a slow, sensitive tune followed by a brash middle-finger of a song. I'd hate to call it a "roller coaster" because that's contrived. So, something that goes up and down with suspense followed by high energy. I realise what I've described there is a roller coaster but to be clear, that's not what I'm comparing it to.
Genre is important for this album, especially because there's such a variety. Costello isn't afraid to use lesser-known and unpopular genres, such as the saloon bar sound of "Hey Clockface / How Can You Face Me," the cursing of a clock at its control of time with an early-hours-of-the-morning vibe. The ragtime-y jazz sound helps you to imagine the character of the song sitting at a bar in the 20's having it out with an ornate clock in the corner. Plus, the dancing piano of Steve Nieve in the background is perfectly placed, but then everyone loves a good pianist (I apologise).
When I heard the beginning of "We Are All Cowards Now," I immediately thought of Childish Gambino's "This is America" with a sweet chorus of voices switching into a grittier undertone of reality. It's a song to sigh to, pointing out all that’s wrong with the world in a poetic manner. A sort of, "Why are we letting the leaders getting away with what they’re doing?" in tired exasperation. It’s obviously incredibly apt for summing up the last few years and slots neatly into 2020.
Media analysis pops up throughout the album with "Hetty O'Hara Confidential," "Newspaper Pane" and the finale of the album "Byline." The latter is a beautifully delicate love story that ends with a past lover finding the main character in a newspaper years later. It's almost an encore to the album after the jazzy, bouncing music hall sound of "I Can't Say Her Name" that actually ends with "And that’s all."
The whole album has a stage production about it. They're more than songs, not to devalue other songs of course, but these examples have been pieced together to form a show and the album lends itself to being listened to as a whole, or at least in four or five song chunks. In a year of reduced live performance, it's been quite an experience to treat the album as a sort of stage-show (without the obvious cheese or actors from Coronation Street). You nod along in agreement to the protesting anthems, sit and ponder upon the spoken-word pieces until you're swaying to the slower, emotive ballads. So, if you've got a spare forty-five minutes and a day or two to think… Enjoy the show.