The music of Elvis Costello poses special problems for the critic. On the one hand, Costello is obviously one of the most inspired lyricists in rock history, right up there with such great poet troubadours as Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Unlike them, however, Costello's music has never really attained mass popularity — his songs receive scant attention on commercial radio, and his albums sell only respectably well.
One reason for Costello's lack of commercial success may be the lyrical and musical complexity of his work. Costello is a poet whose use of words and word games reminds one of John Lennon's acid days. His sensitivity and depth of poetic feeling far outstrip the mindless babble that passes for lyrics in much of today's music. Costello's poetry relies on his unique ability to evoke a wide range of emotions and responses through his manipulation of musical mood and lyrical suggestion. One often is led to feel a certain way by a Costello song without actually being able to identify the exact plot or "message" of the song.
Musically, Costello is very complex. It took me several listens to develop an ear for his music. His sound lacks the dominant guitar line that much of pop music is based on — Stevie Ray Vaughan, for instance — and the melodies are often so complex that they are difficult to pick out readily. Costello's music is so unique that the only way I have found to get the "key" to his sound is in listening to it. As a result, his music has had difficulty in gaining acceptance with a mass audience.
His latest LP, Punch the Clock, may help to change that situation somewhat. Several of its songs are quite conventionally "pop" oriented. Songs such as "Everyday I Write the Book," which has been getting video-play on MTV recently, "The Greatest Thing," and "The World and His Wife" display an accessible pop beat and bouncy melodies, and would probably do quite well on commercial radio If someone had the guts to play them.
Alas, solving one problem often leads to creating others. For while Punch the Clock is quite accessible, it lacks the monumental power and beauty of its immediate predecessor, Imperial Bedroom, which is probably the best rock album of the young decade. Of course, it would be unfair to demand that all new Elvis Costello music fit the Imperial Bedroom mold. The artist, after all. must be free to move in new directions.
But what is the direction of Punch the Clock? Some may say that it is ambiguous. It is not. What it is is self-contradictory. For Elvis Costello is a genius, and Punch the Clock allows us, perhaps, a glimpse into the many moods and directions that genius is involved In. Costello should not even attempt to resolve the tensions within his music, for they are the driving force behind it energy and creativity. Billy Joel seems to have resolved his musical tensions, and is left with a bland, uninteresting album. Punch the Clock illustrates the internal gears of Elvis Costello's creative engine. For those willing to pay the fare in mental effort, the ride on Elvis Costello's "magical mystery tour is well worth it.