After more than four decades, few artists switch musical gears as quickly and ebulliently as Elvis Costello; to this day, you never quite know what you’re getting when he announces a new project.
Two years ago, Costello resumed work with the Imposters — which included two former members of the Attractions — on the album Look Now. On his upcoming Hey Clockface, he again changes direction — but this time within the course of the same album.
The initial tracks released from Hey Clockface — the pent-up “No Flag,” the bump-in-the-night character study “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” and the pop-noir “We Are All Cowards Now” — were recorded in Helsinki. But now comes the erstwhile title track, “Hey Clockface/How Can You Face Me,” which sounds nothing like its predecessors.
Cut in Paris this past February, pre-global pandemic, the song finds Costello backed by a small jazz ensemble dubbed Le Quintette Saint Germain. Steve Nieve from the Attractions and the Imposters returns to the fold, this time joined by trumpeter Michaël Gasche, clarinetist Renaud-Gabriel Pion, cellist Pierre-François “Titi” Dufour and one-named, all-capitals drummer AJUQ. (In a better world, every band would have a one-named, all-capital drummer named AJUQ.)
Whether it was the setting, the musicians or the croissants, Costello sounds comparatively light-hearted and frisky here. As if he were sitting in with a small jazz ensemble in a cramped, smokey club in Paris, he slips into one of his character roles — a man recovering from a gone-missing lover — and vents at a timepiece on his wall: “You said you‘d be a friend to me/But time is just my enemy/And it is hurting me so.” As he says, it’s a song “about picking an argument with time, the very clock face, either running too fast or too slow, depending on the company you keep,” and the musicians’ jaunty accompaniment seems to both perk up and mock the sad-sack narrator.
Toward the end, the track also quotes from the Thirties romper “How Can You Face Me?” by the singer, pianist and songwriter Fats Waller; both songs feature a similar arrangement. Enjoy it while you can (Hey Clockface arrives October 30th); Costello will no doubt be on to another radically different adventure the next time around — or maybe even the next track unveiled from the album.