Reliably prolific songwriter Elvis Costello has achieved a special place in the rock canon, churning out hits since the ’70s. Now, as he and his second-wave rock peers approach 70s of their own, the quantity of their work may have taken a small hit but the quality a large one. But unlike some, Costello has a lot to show for his time on the scene.
Hey Clockface marks the pub rock luminary’s 30th studio album, if you include his work with The Imposters and The Attractions. His professional mien follows as he blazes song-trails into the natural order of things. Songs like the wayward “We Are All Cowards Now” roll out so effortlessly that it’s a wonder they sound as original as they do. Understated lyrical offerings like “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now” march forward with stoic heroism.
Costello’s thick-boned rhythms get their biggest boost from gritty guitars and sleazy synth. “No Flag” showcases his yelp on a set of sticky hooks. “Got no religion, got no philosophy,” he boasts, driving subterranean humidity amid a strapped tenor. Electronic processes and big-beat bombast set up the unlikely rhyme. “Got a head full of ideas, and words that don’t seem to belong to me,” he continues in his best gutter rasp, faintly echoing proto-punk phrasing and grit.
Elvis Costello greases the wheels for profundity with Eastern scales and bowed strings on opener “Revolution #49.” “Love is the one thing we can save,” he doggedly insists, topping the eerie spoken-word piece with a plea. The song does its job, but more stunning is the slow build and bleak fashionista strut of “Newpaper Pane.” Costello’s lyricism returns in force as he unpacks notions of freedom at the song’s zenith. “Freedom to be reckless, freedom to plunder, freedom to dream, freedom to wonder,” he sings, orchestrating a timely clash of innocence and cynicism.
The worst that can be said of Hey Clockface is that Elvis Costello and his musicians get carried away with the horns and the slow jams. As a result, he frequently forgets to pick up his guitar. On the plus side, “Byline” is a thoughtful meditation on a would-be friendship with tasteful Leonard-Cohen-esque vocal stylings over a classic one-time chorus. Converseley, “I Can’t Say Her Name” is an uncomfortable mishmash of Delta blues and New Orleans jazz pedantry.
Costello hit the London pubs hard in 1977 with shovelfuls of straightforward, everyman chorus-rock. Classic Americana asserts a heady influence on his catalog, replete with greaser boogie, hot blues and smoky saloons.
But despite his wit and rhyming, Costello’s voice can be alkaline for the casual listener. On Hey Clockface, he ventures into the sultry and miserable, as on the shadowy burlesque tune “I Do (Zula’s Song),” and dwells in swampy piano jazz through much of the record.
Proceedings are slow and his voice becomes pained. These aren’t deal-breakers, but on the other hand, Elvis Costello ain’t Iggy Pop or David Bowie, either. His inherently conservative style is evident on the bountiful yawn-inducing lounge numbers like “The Whirlwind” and “Vivian Whip.” Too often, the songs take on airs of a piano confessional. That’s fine for a fireside scotch and brandy, but mildly disappointing overall. This wiry “other Elvis” built his name on sweat, and on brash and declarative art.
Costello explores stark modernistic poetry on the thought-provoking “Radio Is Everything.” Reflective, a seaside requiem, the song provides an emotional anchor to the second half of the album. “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” looms nearby with compulsive swagger, and Costello drips cool-guy observation on the spicy boogie-funk jag.
Ultimately, he has more latitude than he needs here. Like Tom Petty, Costello is valid as a solo artist, but better with his signature band. The jazz numbers aren’t particularly memorable, and the best bits recall his more successful work with The Imposters.
For about half the album, he sounds old, and not only because of the clarinets and muted trumpets. His craggy voice gets sing-songy, while arrangements border on hackneyed old-man music. The title track manifests this frumpy direction, and the experiments don’t end there. Hey Clockface is quite subdued and less anthemic than his best.
But we can credit the man for avoiding dogmatic pomp. He won’t be an imitation of himself. Elvis Costello forges ahead consistently. His many and his process endure because in his work, he embodies the living singer-songwriter ethos. Actively producing new material on a regular basis, Costello seems to be one of the few who took things seriously from the start.