Semper, October 11, 1983

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Punch The Clock

Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Ian Gray

The rock media loves to talk about enigmas, because it sells records, but the one true enigma remains Elvis Costello.

Costello deserves the label, not because he is some form of reclusive or genius, but quite simply because there is no other way to explain why, despite his talent, he is still not an enormous success.

He enjoyed a brief flirtation with "Oliver's Army," perhaps one of the most genuinely subversive pop songs ever, but the album, Armed Forces disappointed old and new fans alike.

For the old, it lacked the raw edge of the first two albums. For the new, it proved to be a far cry from the Abba-influenced pop sensibility of the single. Elvis was stranded in a no-man's land in between.

He soon realised the predicament he was in and opted for the only solution available to him: if you can't please everyone, you gotta please yourself.

In the process, of course, he came up with four albums that explored the parameters of pop, soul, R & B and even country music with more energy and character than the great bulk of his contemporaries. Naturally, he didn't only please himself.

He acquired one of the largest and most stable cult followings in the world. But still the massive popularity he deserves evaded him.

This background helps to understand Elvis Costello's present state of mind, but the broader context of the current English music scene also throws some light on it.

Not long after Costello went off on a very individual soul tangent on Get Happy and Trust, bands like Dexy's Midnight Runners, the Jam and ABC ostensibly spear-headed the English soul revival, a sound which is still very much apparent in the fragmented music scene of today.

Costello's albums were packed with brilliant soul. His lyrics were lessons in anger, wit and perception for everybody, but particularly for Kevin Rowlands, Paul Weller and Martin Fry. His band, the Attractions, were good enough to make you believe that it was not just a music of the (by now) remote 60's. Yet he received little credit for it or even for the revival, perhaps because his albums literally overwhelmed listeners. (Get Happy alone contained 21 songs!)

According to recent interviews, Punch the Clock is Costello's attempt to get a hit, to make it big. Yet, despite the excellent cover and the printed lyrics, it is unlikely to be the album that makes him more accesible to the public.

On first listening, the album is severely flawed — disjointed, passionless, even insincere. "Love went mad," "TKO" and "King of Thieves" are terrible — there is no better word. Half-arsed, but — even worse — half-hearted. As Costello himself asks: have we come this far to find a soul cliche?

Subsequent listenings convince that this judgement is a little too harsh. "Everyday I write the book," "The Invisible Man" and "Pills and Soap" all have an appeal which could slot them into a more than usually tolerant top 40.

His version of "Shipbuilding" (the song so perfectly interpreted by Robert Wyatt) is a genuinely moving snapshot of melancholy and defiant romanticism, a timely reminder that there are better ways of reducing unemployment than going to war ("With all the will in the world / Diving for dear life / When we could be diving for pearls").

"The Element Within Her" is a much lighter confection by comparison, but it features uncharacteristic 60's harmonies that point to a new direction in the future, a greater reliance on vocal arrangements.

Overall, however, there is a sense that Elvis Costello has either diluted his talents or overlooked them, in the hope that the result will not be too demanding on his potential audience, a questionable approach at the best of times.

But it's hard to imagine new fans being inspired by the album, less difficult to imagine old fans (if they have lasted this distance) treasuring it like the rest of their collection.

Old and new alike can only look forward to the time when he resumes diving for pearls.


Semper, October 11, 1983

Ian Gray reviews Punch The Clock.


1983-10-11 Semper page 28.jpg
Page scan.

1983-10-11 Semper cover.jpg


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