Listen, I like Elvis Costello as much as anyone. But there's no getting around the fact that he's better at some things than at others.
In his brief, amazing career, Costello's songwriting ability has grown to the point where he can now write just about any kind of material at will, and do it well.
As a performer, well, Costello will never slay the masses like a Michael Jackson or a Paul McCartney. He's too intense and acrid a singer to put people at ease the way a truly big-time entertainer does. And that's okay, of course, except for one thing: A lot of people will never realize what a superlative composer he is because they'll never listen to him.
On Punch the Clock (as on last year's Imperial Bedroom), Costello tries hard to enhance his appeal without sacrificing integrity. Thanks to producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, each track is brimful of attractive little "extras" designed to make him seem less forbidding: spirited backing singers, blaring horns, insinuating strings, walls of sound, and so forth. Langer and Winstanley do a sterling job, just as they do on Madness' records.
And you know what? It probably won't make any difference. Punch the Clock sounds just like every other Elvis Costello record in that the driving force remains our agitated protagonist, sharp-tongued on even the tenderest songs.
If other artists recorded these songs, maybe folks would then want to hear Costello's own versions. Here are some thoughts on who might be (or might have been) good at what.
"Let Them All Talk": Those rousing horns should entice Dexy's Midnight Runners, but this track is ideal for Graham Parker in his Rumour days. Only Stick to Me-era GP could swing the chorus as it deserves.
"Everyday I Write the Book": The charming lilt suggests Aretha Franklin—not the current version but the "Day Dreaming" (1972) one. The way Costello caresses "everyday" implies he thinks so too.
"The Greatest Thing": Starring pounding drums that recall Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." Wouldn't Robert Plant have fun here?
"The Element Within Her": The gentle sway of this romantic gem begs for Bryan Ferry's attention. These goose-bump vocal harmonies haven't been heard much since Roxy Music's "Could It Happen to Me?" on Siren.
"Love Went Mad": The younger Elton John used to turn out similar combinations of flamboyant melodies and vile sentiments ("I wish you luck with a capital 'F' ") on a regular basis. His were overstated too.
"Shipbuilding": No offense, folks, but Barry Manilow's probably itching to make this ethereal anti-military ballad a schlock hit. Even jazz great Chet Baker's airy trumpet solo could translate into cheap sentiment.
"T.K.O. (Boxing Day)": Let Olivia Newton-John take a shot and get ready for a glorious surge of power. "Charm School": Prince writes tightly-controlled high melodrama like this, a heartbreaker of the first degree. A perfect setting for his layered keyboards and vocals.
"The Invisible Man": Pounding piano, over-grown melodies, overlong lyrics. Could pass for a florid Billy Joel soap opera.
"Mouth Almighty": Evocative textures and surprising directness mark this one "Reserved for ABBA." The chorus has their kind of kick.
"King of Thieves": Between the background sighs and seemingly endless twists, it could easily have been on Abbey Road. In other words, too ornate.
"Pills and Soap": Costello's muted, menacing tone and occasional lapse into full-throated agony comes from the Procol Harum (circa Grand Hotel) primer of scary effects. Gary Brooker could still give it a tumble.
"The World and His Wife": A swaggering, vulgar windup. You know how Bruce Springsteen sounds like he's gargling when he sings? Costello does the same here. Say no more.
So there. All doubters must now be convinced of Costello's talent and versatility. For the believers who needed no persuading, Punch the Clock is a smart album that protests its own cleverness too much. Wonder what kind of record Costello would really like to make?