Elvis Costello has been acclaimed as one of the most clever and literate new pop tunesmiths. Throughout his prolific career, he has implanted a cunning lyrical eye in a variety of genres, from rock and soul to country and Cole Porter balladeering. Even though his songs have been covered by mainstream superstars like Linda Ronstadt, more often than not, his pop hybrids have been too distinctive and heady, lacking the bland, pablum mechanics which garner mainstream appeal.
Judging by the acceptance of his first single, "Everyday I Write The Book" one would think that Punch The Clock is an obvious grab for mass appeal. In fact, Costello has drawn considerable fire from critics, contending just that. Granted, the musical direction, a bright, clean soul/rock base with brass accents, may not have the raw grit of the original soul classics. But the arrangements are far from predictable and the musicianship illuminates every nuance in the material,
Lyrically, Costello is as sharp as ever. His wordplay rs magnificent; double entendres and vivid allegories abound. A movie buffs world is graphically detailed in "The Invisible Man:" "But it's a wonderful world within these walls / Where a shower of affection becomes Niagara Falls." Most of the songs concern the battle of love gained and love lost. "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef," he sings in "Love Went Mad," "I wish you luck with a capital 'F'."
But the album's masterpiece is "Shipbuilding," probably the most effective and telling anti-war song since the Vietnam era. Without resorting to diatribes of bloodshed and waste, Costello details the life in an English port city during the Falklands War. He graphically, but subtly, depicts jingoistic paranoia, and the bittersweet effects of a town that gains employment from death: "It's just a rumor that was spread around town / Somebody said that someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The result of this shipbuilding." Set to a slow piano ballad with a mournful trumpet solo and Costello's ghostly vocal phrasing, the music illuminates the quiet desperation of man's failure to come near his potential: "With all the will in the world," Costello sings in the chorus, "Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls."
Punch The Clock may not be Elvis Costello's most challenging work, but there's still ample proof of his tremendous talents as a singer, a songwriter and a musician.