Like fine caviar, dry wine and good scotch, Elvis Costello takes time and effort to love. Not that one cannot instantaneously be affected by Costello's catchy pop style, but to appreciate fully the extent of his artistry, one must spin Costello's vinyl carefully to reach its peak.
It is time well spent. In fact, there isn't a more rewarding experience in the entire rock spectrum.
Punch the Clock, Costello's new LP, follows in the contemplative, moody and poetic footsteps of last year's landmark album, Imperial Bedroom, so closely, in fact, that at first it appears Elvis is playing it safe by reworking the Bedroom style. By remaining on proven ground, Costello runs the risk of being criticized for his redundancy.
But Clock's delicate refinement overcomes these risks.
Within the narrow pop framework, Elvis' unmatched skill as a songwriter allows him to advance the breadth of his music and ideas. By combining enough time-tested elements with his own original touches, Elvis manages to create something excitably rich, new and interesting.
Elvis fuses any number of pop cliches, deriving his hooks and chord changes from a wide range of sources. From the fab four of Liverpool, to the mod scene of the '60s, up through punchy R&B and American soul music — he takes these snatches of inspiration and, like a consummate artist, reshapes them into his own.
Punch the Clock is laden with soul hooks, but the horn charts and choruses have a snap that is singularly Elvis. There is a calypso beat in "Charm School," but it comes out not as derivation, but as a compendium that is markedly Elvis. There is a kitschy horn chart leading into "Let Them All Talk," but it manifests itself not as camp, but as brilliantly satirical Elvis.
Elvis' musical acrobatics are adept, and, predictably, his lyrical acumen shines. No one in pop music can consistently fuse rhymes and couplets the way Elvis can. And no one can inflect a complex lyric with such perfect nuance.
Additionally, Elvis seems to be reaching toward more lucid imagery by closely incorporating both lyrical and musical colors into his richly painted scenarios.
"Pills and Soap" demonstrates this most aptly, evoking the horror thriller genre of the '30s with its four-chord piano progression against foreboding images of life on the edge. "Give us our daily bread in individual slices / and something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis."
"The Invisible Man" offers further proof of Elvis' cinematic allusion with its piano chords rolling out like a Mack Sennett chase scene. The lyrics offer obvious analogies, from the lift of the title to lines like "But it's a wonderful world within these cinema walls."
These inclusive evocations evolve into beautiful time-pieces and unparalleled imagery.
Once again, Elvis is king.