Elvis Costello is enjoying a current vogue on college campuses across the nation and it is easy to see why — he's clever (oh, so clever), critically acclaimed, and, in his latest incarnation, utterly hollow. Punch The Clock, his new album, is vague and weightless; the individual songs have all the impact of daydreams. Remarkably, what makes the album so disposable is also what makes Costello such a chic item of late: Punch The Clock is perfect background music for the busy student, it may be listened to without the necessity for (or possibility of) emotional involvement. One can imagine a whole generation of grad schoolers quietly filing it away when the next big thing comes along. There will be nothing to lose, no ties to break.
It would be easy and tempting to criticize the album on purely technical grounds, because, technically, it is very bad. Costello's froggy vocals are often unlistenable; his band, the Attractions, is as thin-sounding and feeble as ever; and the horn section, which was apparently thrown in as part of a desperate, last-minute musical facelift, only muddies the focus.
Yet the real problem here goes a bit deeper. The lyrics, allegedly Costello's forte, truly cripple the album; what was once a compelling, unsentimental world view has curdled into the kind of annoying cuteness which forces the listener to wince with almost every couplet.
Take "TKO (Boxing Day)" for example. "They put the numb into number, they put the cut into cutie, they put the slum into slumber and the boot into beauty." On most albums a line that bad would be somewhat jarring; on Punch The Clock it's just par for the course. Costello's portraits of personal relationships have become impossibly convoluted and he has apparently decided that the sheer accumulation of details — any details — is somehow superior to a few well-chosen gems. Many of the thirteen tunes here (Costello is still packing them in tight) simply drown in a sea of excess words.
The political songs are a bit better. "Pills and Soap" and "Shipbuilding," both influenced by the war in the Falklands, are heartfelt and intelligent, frighteningly evocative of recent American military misadventures. Costello doesn't go in for infantile posturing like the boys of U2, and his worldly concerns are thoughtful and mature. Yet neither song is truly successful. "Pills and Soap" derails into incoherence by the second verse, and "Shipbuilding" is ruined by its wretched lounge-jazz setting.
A few moments of inspiration do arise. "Every Day I Write the Book" is actually one of Costello's best songs; the lyrics are clever and the humor is right on target.
The album's closer, "The World and His Wife," also manages to hold together, if only for a few lines. "The little girl you dangled on your knee without mishap stirs something in your memory and something in your lap." The image is pure quintessential Costello; a masterpiece. And, on Punch The Clock, it sounds very lonely indeed.