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Elvis Costello - Hey Clockface (Album Review)

Monday, 02 November 2020 Written by Jacob Brookman

Photo: Lens O'Toole

Elvis Costello’s 31st studio album shows a British icon in fine fettle. It is a punchy, if uneven, trip through his stylistic catalogue, and at 66 he retains a great deal of mischievous chutzpah and artistic confidence. That said, the record will likely be a total head scratcher for Costello newcomers.

‘Hey Clockface’ was recorded during sessions in Helsinki, Paris and New York with a rotating cast of producers and collaborators, including guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline. We open with the spoken word Revolution #49, which drops into the scratchy and processed No Flag, a track that recalls the overproduced 1990s indie-punk of Blur’s Bugman, with the bilious lyricism that defines much of Costello’s work. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.

The answer, of course, is that aforementioned magical mystery tour. Unlike similar British rock luminaries David Bowie and Elton John, Costello’s stylistic variations have never really related to physical chameleonism.

As such, the chonky imbalance of ‘Hey Clockface’, from crooned balladry on I Do (Zula’s song) to satirical 808 jungle drums on Hetty O’Hara Confidential, is quite confusing.

But when it connects, it's marvellous. Newspaper Pane tells a story of a doomed love affair over seemingly different historical eras. The boxy hip hop drums and vocal production seem to date the song to the ‘90s, and it also features the familiar crappy organ voices used by longtime collaborator Steve Nieve.

Like Costello’s voice itself, the organ sound forms a bit of an arrangement joke (or scherzo) in his music. Thus, AAA composition and devastating lyric writing are seemingly undermined by cheap and tacky arrangements. That nasal vocal style of Costello’s, itself an instant ‘80s throwback to Morrissey and Tears for Fears, has always protected him from accusations of pomposity. Think of the way it vandalises one of his biggest hits: a cover of Charles Aznavour’s She.

And that’s in play throughout ‘Hey Clockface’. This is pristine music making and storytelling that is messed up and mucked about by its creator. It has been said that a person’s artistic style is defined more by what they can’t do then what they can. If Costello has an achilles heel it is a talent for creative self-sabotage—perhaps because songwriting seems too easy. It’s this tension between what he can do and what he actually does that makes him one of the UK’s most brilliant, yet underrated, exports.

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