University Of Iowa Daily Iowan, September 6, 1983

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Cynicism, innocence pound throughout
new Costello LP


Kevin Parks

The Impostor must be writing songs in his sleep. Since 1977, when 22-year-old Liverpudlian Declan MacManus took a short vacation from his computer programming duties and recorded a shockingly mature debut, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello and the Attractions have released in excess of 135 tunes touching on a plethora of styles and tastes. From raw new wave to country swing, from Motown soul to straight ahead pop, Costello has proved himself a versatile, sensitive — and now popular — performer. Elvis' latest offering is Punch The Clock (PTC) (Columbia), a 13 song LP of addictive riff-making as well as substantive songwriting — it is one of those rare records which prove that accessibility need not sacrifice honesty and genuine craftsmanship. It is one of his finer, most well-rounded efforts.

Much of the credit for this fact goes to the Attractions — drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and particularly keyboardist Steve Nieve, whose talents are felt strongly throughout Costello's work, and especially so on PTC. But mostly it is Elvis' voice that is so unmistakable. Some critics have acknowledged his songwriting capabilities while holding judgment on his voice ... except to say that it is unique.

But here the vocals are undeniably strong, dynamic, even soothing, as on "Shipbuilding," "Charm School" and "Every Day I Write The Book." The latter cut, the album's first radio and video release, takes a tired theme (documenting the progress of a love affair) and, with the aid of Nieve's bouncing keyboards, gives it new dimension. Even without the royal innuendo of the video version, Costello's treatment extends the cut beyond its boundaries as a pop tune to make a more meaningful comment on the fragility of lovers' relations.

PTC undoubtedly draws on Elvis' earlier work, but does not dwell on it. 1980s Get Happy shows the same Motown-influenced soul throughout many of its 21 tunes. But on the new record songs are developed with greater precision, and flushed out more completely with a full horn section (The TKO Horns) and backing vocals from the terrifically enticing 'Afrodiziak' (Caron Wheeler, Claudia Fontaine). And instead of quickly developing a single idea and then leaving the listener in mid-riff, themes here are carefully expanded into more complete, understandable pop scenarios.

Costello's youthful angst has mellowed on PTC into adult concern, but his feelings are no less genuine — and far from complacent. Indeed, his current efforts present a unique juxtaposition of innocence and cynicism. The straight ahead pop of PTC seems almost out of place when played behind Elvis' sinister storytelling.

"The Greatest Thing," which transforms a simple "look but don't touch" theme into a zinging commentary on modern masculinity, is one example of this. In front of Nieve's pounding piano and the horns' fine contribution, Elvis reels off a warning to female untouchables: "In and out of matrimony / Never once removed the Sony / 'Cos it's a status thing ... / Punch the clock and in time you'll get pulled apart / If you're married on paper and not in your heart."

Whether the subject of his scorn is cruel women ("Charm School," "Let Them All Talk"), conceited, complacent men ("The Element Within Her," "Love Went Mad"), himself ("Mouth Almighty"), or the powers that be ("King Of Thieves"), hardly anyone goes untouched by Costello's waspish tongue.

He has a dark humor that springs from personal rejection and alienation. As one writer has put it, "... Costello's stance may begin with private refusals, but it ends with public references." It is particularly so on PTC, where songs like "The Invisible Man," a seemingly simple tune about growing up at the movies, suddenly becomes a statement on the evils of Big Brother mentality: "Never mind there's a good film showing tonight / Where they hang everybody who can read and write / Oh that could never happen here but then again it might." And in "Love Went Mad," Costello glosses over a gleeful melody with best wishes for the complacent boss: "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef / I wish you luck with a capital 'F'."

The title of PTC does not indicate that Elvis is biding time; rather, he's punching with confident but controlled gusto. It may not be the most adventurous Costello record to date, but from the tender croon of "Shipbuilding," and the near-psychedelic "Pills And Soap," to the pugilistic metaphors of "T.K.O. (Boxing Day)," PTC is certainly his most solid and self-assured.

Costello's victory is to present the obscure, even unthinkable realities of everyday in popular terms: what starts out as a toe-tap ends up as a head scratch. After nine ground-breaking records in just six years, it is clear that Elvis Costello is the premier singer/songwriter of our time. If it is becoming stylish to lose faith because he's selling too many records, I'm not in style. Elvis is just now coming into his own with a musical innocence and lyrical cynicism that together produce a rarity in modern pop — music that is both listenable and meaningful.

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Daily Iowan, September 6, 1983


Kevin Parks reviews Punch The Clock.

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1983-09-06 University Of Iowa Daily Iowan page 5B.jpg
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