Elvis Costello can croon with the best of them, a fact he fully established with 1982's masterful Imperial Bedroom.
Although this is another expertly produced pop tapestry full of clever wordplay, enticing instrumental touthes and more than' a few tricks of the tongue, Punch The Clock shows precious little growth from its predecessor.
In fact, for the first time since Elvis burst upon the scene with a vengence in 1976, he seems to be backtracking.
You can argue the merits of this album with Costello fanatics till you are almost blue in the face, but the fact remains that this year's Elvis Is essential a rehash; a melding of the Get Happy Stax sound with the precision pop polish of Imperial Bedroom.
The horns that bristle through the best tracks here have all been heard before, and with the exception of a magestic trumpet solo by Chet Baker (that's right, the original Chet Baker!) on the wonderful ballad "Shipbuilding," they add little luster to the material.
Even worse are the female vocals, heard on "Everyday I Write the Book," the current single. While the vocals enhance the Motown feel of this perky number, it is the contributions of keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas (who has his finest moments here) that salvage this tune.
And though Elvis is singing better than ever, matured in phrasing and delivery, he hardly even bothers to strap on a guitar anywhere. In truth, this might be called the Steve Nieve Orchestra, featuring vocalist Elvis Costello.
Nieve is a phenominal player, whose inventive fills brighten every number. But lacking Costello's half-cocked guitar tones, this album is more puff than punch.
Sure there are embraceable moments. "The Greatest Thing" and "The Element Within Her" both come to mind as melodic little joyrides, while "Charm School" rates as one of Costello's finest compositions ever. And he hasn't lost his penchant for biting political pieces, as "Pills and Soap" aptly demonstrates.
Yet ultimately, Punch The Clock goes nowhere.
Coming from any other musician on the scene, this razzle-dazzle album would seem almost a masterpiece. But from Costello we have come to expect those rare albums that keep you listening through the night, breathless with every spin.
In spite of its polish, its lyrical and instrumental beauty, Punch The Clock just isn't worth losing sleep over.