Well, nobody’s gonna call this album a masterpiece. On Punch the Clock, Costello retreats from the no-guts, no-glory stance that inspired Imperial Bedroom and chooses instead to tinker with the basic machinery. Toward that end, producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley have added two female backup singers and a peppy horn section to the still-solid Attractions sound. But most of Punch the Clock is standard Elvis fare: terrific tunes, take-it-or-leave-it singing and jaw-breaking wordplay that baffles as much as it enlightens. It’s still a spirited combination, but only in those moments when Costello transcends his glibness does this record become something really special.
With its extra aural punch, the album sounds like a winner right off. “Let Them All Talk” is a mile-a-minute raveup that supports Costello’s scratchy crooning without snuffing it. “Listening to the sad song that the radio plays/Have we come this fa-fa-fa to find a soul cliche,” he worries, but with that brass pumping away, who cares? Langer and Winstanley add some fine touches: the track finishes with a nifty falsetto, filigree (Elvis?) and some high-octave tinkling from keyboardist Steve Nieve.
But before long, Costello fans will be on territory that looks a little too familiar. “Didn’t they teach you anything except how to be cruel/In that charm school,” asks Elvis in “Charm School,” and no matter how lusciously the melody line floats, it’s hard not to think that you’ve been here before. The old themes are back: fighting, beauty and the greed of nations. Costello’s aggressive, suspicious sensibility is a given by now, but it’s too often couched in opaque, uninteresting scenarios (the otherwise appealing “King of Thieves”) or tossed out in facile phrasemaking. In “T.K.O. (Boxing Day),” he sings: “They put the numb into number they put the cut into cutie/They put the slum into slumber and the boot into beauty.” Clever? You bet, but naggingly so, like a smartass kid tugging on your shirttail.
Costello can do better — and he does. The mild paranoia of “The Invisible Man” is at least a little gleeful, and it’s worth it just to hear Elvis the Anglo pronounce “Harry Houdini.” “The World and His Wife” shows his smarm-minded eye at work: “The little girl you dangled on your knee without mishap/Stirs something in your memory/And something in your lap.” And in “The Element within Her,” Elvis even utilizes a Mersey-style la-la-la chorus: “He was a playboy/Could charm the birds right out of the trees/Now he says, ‘What do I do with these?'”
Costello can be hard to figure — unlike most singer/songwriters, he writes compositions that don’t often correlate to his own state of mind. But the war in the Falklands — practically prophesied in his earlier work — has had a clear effect on him, and the two songs it inspired are poignant, rantless and straight to the heart. The plangent “Shipbuilding,” a surprise hit for Robert Wyatt in England, carefully delineates a town where war is about to cure the unemployment problem. “Within weeks they’ll be reopening the shipyards/And notifying the next of kin/Once again,” Elvis sings with unusual care, high in his register. A stirring trumpet solo by the legendary Chet Baker beautifully enhances the track’s wistful lament. “It’s all we’re skilled in/We will be shipbuilding.” It’s a beautifully simple, almost terse, rumination, clear as water.
Perhaps more powerful than “Shipbuilding” is “Pills and Soap,” a song that Elvis originally released in England under the moniker “The Impostor.” Backed by the endlessly inventive Nieve and a click track with all the finger-snapping ominousness of an alley confrontation, Costello zeros in: “They talked to the sister, the father and the mother/With a microphone in one hand and a chequebook in the other/And the camera noses in to the tears on her face/The tears on her face/The tears on her face.” Sung with on-the-one rhythmic sense by Costello, the repetition of that one phrase packs a bigger emotional oomph than many of his tangled, tortured lyrics. In a single image, Costello captures both the crassness of the press — and, more significantly, the agony of a sorrow-filled parent. The impact is stunning.
Punch the Clock won’t alter anyone’s opinion of Elvis Costello, because it doesn’t represent much of a change for him. He remains the most consistently interesting songwriter in rock & roll, and there is evidence that a new, more emotionally generous sensibility may soon be present in his work. “I know I’ve got my faults, and among them I can’t control my tongue,” he offers in “Mouth Almighty,” and it’s true on this LP. As a holding pattern with a few flourishes here and there, Punch the Clock is a satisfying, if unstartling, opus.