He may have gone full tilt pop, but Elvis Costello hasn't lost his comic edge. On his latest, Punch the Clock, he sings, "crawling around with my crooner cufflinks and my calling card cologne, but the realization of being replaced starts to tell tales across my face, without a soul to talk to or a hair out of place."
Costello may well have lost his spot as new wave's master of contempt, but he seems comfortable enough in his new role of raising pop's consciousness.
As Punch the Clock, and even more, Costello's recent appearance at the Pier in Manhattan, shows, he doesn't have the big voice to make the transition from WNEW-FM to the make-believe ballroom on the AM side of the dial. Then again Frank Sinatra wouldn't know what to do with a lyric like "Shipbuilding."
Costello's slow tunes — "Shipbuilding," "Clowntime Is Over," "Kid About It" and, don't forget, "Alison" — have grown more and more important to his live shows. In fact, he didn't build up the steam on August 10 until the final encores, implying perhaps that's he does feel a bit alone. Or maybe he just didn't want to let his unconverted fans down. Unfortunately, whether because of a long time on the road or natural facts, Costello just didn't have the pipes to carry the show on their own. Flats and cracks that can be smoothed out in the studio, were all too obvious on stage. Fortunately, the Attractions were in fine form, the four-man TKO horns punched up the sound and, most of all, Costello's material hasn't lost its edge.
Costello reached back to his first album and did material from all of the records except for the country album and Armed Forces. He did about half of the show with the horns, half with just the Attractions. No covers this time, except for a bit of "Backstabbers," which he used as a lead into "King Horse."
As for the album, it's half great, half OK. The first three tunes, "Shipbuilding," "Invisible Man" and "Pills and Soap" stand with anything that preceded. Costello's insistence on wordplay and a certain amount of complexity, as well as his refusal to cave in to the dancers, has to be admired. On the aforementioned, he raises pop music to a level heretofore scaled by only a few, maybe only Randy Newman. Half of a great Elvis Costello album isn't bad. But there's more to be had.