I heard Elvis Costello's Punch The Clock this summer and was initially disappointed. I still can't give an ironclad recommendation on it. I've tried to understand the new sound, the horns and ooo-wah back-ups, but it's difficult. In hopes of finding "the essence from within," I re-read some of his past interviews and the current reviews of his latest. I found that I was in agreement with the critics who referred to Punch The Clock as "awkward" and "confused," but there is no room for the fans who scream "sell-out" just because Costello no longer does the angry young man routine. In a New York Rocker interview, the so-called tortured artist complained, "I'm writing from the viewpoint of a moderately successful musician," and not "a 22-year-old computer programmer." True, unlike past Elvis album covers, the Elvis seen on the new LP is not in an angst-ridden pose or with the black nerd glasses. His expression is tough to read, though. Is he glaring at you, contemplating the world, or is he just plain bored?
(Are ya gonna talk about the album or what?) O.K., Punch The Clock has a few well-crafted songs suitable for AOR airplay, most notably "Everyday I Write The Book," "T.K.O.," and "The King of Thieves." But sit down and listen to the whole thing and you'll begin to loathe the Muzak brass section a la Chicago, like on "Let Them All Talk" and "The World and His Wife." You will also find a sappy piano plinking away that becomes increasingly irritating, especially on "Love Went Mad." Somewhat like David Bowie, Costello should be admired for his adventures into various musical genres, but many times he returns with quirky ditties that don't hold a Bic lighter to his past accomplishments. The trademark cynicism and wit still holds true in his lyrics, but much of Costello's paranoid poetry and clever wordplay falls short of forming a cohesive song.
Exceptions to the above would have to be "Pills and Soap" and "Shipbuilding". Both are eloquently simple in presentation and each concerns protests against war, (specifically Britain's involvement in the Faulkland Island's). The lyrics, "Give us our daily bread in individual slices / and something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis," and "With all the will in the world / diving for dear life / when we could be diving for pearls" poignantly express a nation's troubles, without the political hoopla of say the Clash or U2. Appropriately, both songs did extremely well in the British charts.
Another cut, "The Greatest Thing" caught my ear as being impressive, comparable to "Green Shirt" on Armed Forces or "Pump it Up" on This Year's Model. This song appears to be central to the album's title and the lyrical themes of love and boredom in the ordinary man's life. (Learned to write like that in 101.) Granted most musicians talk of love, lost and found, but Elvis is always wary of idyllic relationships: "Punch the clock and in time you'll get pulled apart / If you've married on paper and not in your heart". Fittingly, he ends the record with a tearjerker about a broken marriage. An abandoned husband sits at home getting smashed: "longing thoughts go hankering for the old home overseas / with a blindfold and a National anthem / sung in different keys". Is he apprehensive of settling down with Mrs. Costello and raising a bunch of little Elvises? Probably so. Though this effort of Costello's isn't the best example of his musical development, he's still young and an incredibly proficient songwriter. He's certainly against punching the time clock of life, day in, day out. We'll just have to wait until he punches the clock off the wall with his fist.