When the lights went out I didn't know what to do
If I could fool myself I thought maybe I'd fool you
— Elvis Costello
If Elvis Costello is not the best songwriter around now, he is certainly the most interesting. No one else is as consistent, witty, perceptive, gripping, catchy, complex, pop, or unique as this "other" Elvis. Unfortunately, his involuted, non-FM oriented rock is generally overlooked by the mainstream, with a few curious exceptions; he wrote "Girl's Talk" for Linda Ronstadt, and in the movie E.T., Eliot's brother walks in to the house singing "Accidents Will Happen." (Word has it that Steven Spielberg is a big E.C. fan.)
Elvis had both the fortune and misfortune of appearing in the thick of the new wave movement. Being associated with new wave gave him a tag and an audience, but it also limited him to a smaller, more discriminating audience. His take-it-or-leave-it angry young man image didn't help matters much either Elvis has also fallen into the Velvet Underground's and Bob Dylan's bad habit of alienating audiences with unpredictable LP's, appearances, et al.
He cannot be pigeonholed, as he is obviously intelligent enough to avoid stereotyping. He is also very, very prolific — did you know that the average Elvis Costello LP contains 16 songs?
Among other things going for him is that The Attractions, his backing band, are one of the tightest acts in rock today. Any band that can firmly grasp Costello's ideas with as much conviction as Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas do is more than worthy of the praise that's been laid upon them.
With all of this said, let it be known that Elvis Costello is not 100 percent successful at what he does. His cat and mouse game sometimes tires or falls flat in relation to his other works and some of his overambitious ideas don't always gel. However, it is safe to say that even his relative failures are more interesting than a good 90 percent of most pop and rock around today. For example, his Armed Forces album (contains "Oliver's Army" and "Peace Love & Understanding" is often criticized for being too synth-oriented and slick. In relation to EC's work this may be true, but A Flock Of Seagulls later made a career out of this stuff, as did the Fixx and countless others.
Get Happy, a 20 song soul-influenced album was criticized for being out of step and ridiculous. Yet Madness and Dexy's Midnight Runners attempt the same sort of thing now. This is called "being ahead of your time." It may not be hip to like Elvis now, but like the best work of Dylan, the Beach Boys, The Doors and The Kinks this is music that is so far ahead of the competition that it needs a good ten years to be absorbed. Whether you appreciate it or not is solely a matter of personal choice, but let's bridge things by saying that Elvis Costello's newest album Punch the Clock is good, not great, but one of the year's best LP's and Elvis' most commercial yet.
The best of Costello's work has been the violently aggressive and the fleetingly repressive. On Punch the Clock he tries to combine the two and doesn't quite deliver the knockout punch expected. The artsy ambitions of Imperial Bedroom (last year's classic) have been welded together with the soulful bang of Get Happy. By all reasoning this should have worked, but the album comes out more unfocused than coherent.
On the other hand, if you have never bought a Costello album before this is the one to buy. It is catchy the first time around, commercial, as deep as anything else you may listen to and it contains the hit single "Every Day I Write The Book."
Elvis has added a full nom section with this album, something hinted at in the past but not fully realized until now Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the same team that brought us Dexy's and others of that ilk, produce. This should all add up to a slambang triumph but it doesn't because, for the first time in his career Elvis gives everybody mercy and comes out a genuinely nice guy with few tricks up his sleeve.
In the past, his strong point was that no matter how "nice" he got you still couldn't figure him out.
The album starts out with the catchy "Let Them All Talk," a soul-flavored powerhouse number that the Attractions add a fiery vigor to. Backing vocals by Afrodiziak also supply a counterpoint not usually heard from EC. "Everyday I Write The Book" follows hot on its heels (with more female vocal counterpoint), but things get a little tripped up from there. "The Greatest Thing" and "The Element Within Her" are just too typical and reserved to make any kind of impression. This certainly seems like a retreat from the left field eloquence of Imperial Bedroom. "Shipbuilding," despite all of its political relevance, does not leave a lasting impression and sounds rather unfocused. Was he trying too hard?
Fortunately "Love Went Mad" pulls through with a damn catchy melody and lines like "I wish you luck with a capital 'F'." Side two opens with "T.K.O.," another infectious soul number which, like "Let them All Talk," succeeds (but not after repeated playings). Nor does the depressing "Charm School" with its soap opera story line and subtle denunciations of... well one can't tell, it's so subtle!
Fortunately "The Invisible Man" gets the LP back on the right track with its tight ironic riff and references to Harry Houdini, and Pessimism: "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." "Mouth Almighty" is simply a great. "Pills and Soap" is another political song which was a huge hit in England this summer. Its bitter attack on the royalty of England actually works within its rhythm machine confines.