Punching in again with his ninth album in six years, Elvis Costello is better than ever on this year's model, Punch the Clock. An upbeat collection of contagious beats, surprising melodies and Costello's trademark tongue-and-mind-twisting lyrics, Punch the Clock is the perfect follow-up to last year's melancholy masterpiece Imperial Bedroom.
The theme of this album is betrayal, but its mood is positive and undefeated, and most of the songs are upbeat and optimiistic, in a bizarre Elvis Costello sort of way. Punch the Clock seems the appropriate next step in the maturing of Costello, from the hostility and anger of his early albums, to the depressed Bedroom, up to this, an enthusiastic and knowing assortment of great music.
Many of the songs on this album are extensively orchestrated, perhaps too much so for some Costello fans, who might find the heavy use of horns too much of a big band sound and too far from the sparse songs of the early Elvis.
But the classical Costello hallmarks are all there, in his ironic, perfectly crafted lyrics. The words are often bitter, in surprising contrast to the upbeat melodies. "I wish you luck with a capital F" he croons, in "Love Went Mad," an aggressive and syncopated number. All Costello's songs demand more than one listening to catch his triple (or more) entendres and hidden ironies. "I'll write this story down, but you'll never guess the / Final twist" he sings and it applies to his own music as well as the song's story.
Costello's music is always unpredictable. He plays on words and fits them to the music in unexpected ways. He is always clever, but never at the expense of the music. "They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy / There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag ends of the aristocracy," he says, in a typical Costello creation: biting, ironic and right on target
Melodies have always been a strong point in Costello's music. and Punch the Clock is no exception. There are all kinds of tunes, from the punchy, syncopated "The Greatest Thing" to the laid-back love-song-with-a-twist "The Element Within Her," to the wistful ballad "Shipbuilding," a disillusioned lament of betrayal and war.
One of the best songs on this album is "The Invisible Man," an upbeat, dizzy creation with generous doses of Costello humor and irony, along with a great source and a lot more beneath the surface. "But if stars are only painted on the ceiling above / Then who can you turn to and who do you love"..
Costello's distinctive voice perfectly captures his sarcasm and wry outlook, but it also has a certain, raw, vulnerable quality which tugs the listener into the emotion of the songs. In "Charm School" and "Shipbuilding," two of the few non-upbeat songs, the disillusionment and bitterness of their message comes across with aching clarity. In his faster songs, Elvis crams more words than you would believe possible between trumpet fanfares and insistent drumbeats.
Punch the Clock is such an exhilarating experience that it's hard to sit still and listen to. Costello has never been more brilliantly musical, and he's certainly never been this positive. His songs admit the pain of betrayal, but he carries on with a new clear-eyed strength and optimism. " I punch the clock and it's OK / I know a girl who takes my breath away / And it's the greatest thing."
Elvis is on top again with Punch the Clock, a celebration of survival that should appeal to non-Costello fans as well as to the old guard. And isn't it the greatest thing...