On his latest solo outing, Elvis Costello still surprises, mixing at least two distinct styles for a complicated look at the passing of time and more
“I’ve got no philosophy / I’ve got a head full of ideas and words that don’t seem to belong to me,” Elvis Costello sings early on new album Hey Clockface.
That final predicate rarely rings true in Costello’s work, but the first two ideas need some clarification. Costello clearly has a head full of ideas; his career has been driven by a surplus of ’em, of constant variations and genre experimentations. That whole “no philosophy” bit, though, comes through as a little hollow. If he’s tended to avoid a single aesthetic, that need to work through sounds from punk to country to soul to chamber music has provided a steady drive. On Hey Clockface, he still surprises, mixing at least two distinct styles for a complicated look at the passing of time and more.
Costello, as the album acknowledges, no longer remains an angry younger man, but he still has a highly active metaphorical liver. Both “No Flag” and “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now” carry a deep seated bitterness with touches of nihilism. In the former, that rancor comes with the drains of aging. The flags are down and the romances are over as grim self-awareness has arisen, only the final lines offering any sort of epiphanic escape. “They’re Not Laughing” suggests the value of a good comeuppance cloaked in disdain, but it continually undercuts its core sentiment. The song celebrates succeeding in the face of jeers even as it worries about the validity of embracing the accompanying resentment. Costello writes from the far side of fame, with a certain maturity present.
Artist: Elvis Costello
Album: Hey Clockface
Label: Concord Music Group
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The two tracks might carry somewhat similar themes, but they point to the musical split on the album. Costello recorded these songs in three different cities with three different set-ups, and it shows. “No Flag” comes from the Helsinki studios, sessions that let in more of his New Wave pop, rough hewn with almost industrial percussion at times. “They’re Not Laughing,” like about two-thirds of the album, comes from Paris sessions with a jazzy ensemble called Le Quintette Saint Germain and involving long-time collaborator Steve Nieve. Those cuts feature some quick study and improvisation as the group nods to classic American pop traditions.
That gap in styles turns a potential weakness into a strength on Hey Clockface. Costello doesn’t have to decide if he’d rather hang out with Paul Weller or Cole Porter. Neither does he have to synthesize the two. As he explores his ideas, he can go wherever he wants to paint a broad image of where he is right now. The result isn’t perfect. Some of the sudden musical shifts (especially the moves into loungier music and the scat on “I Can’t Say Her Name” that one unpublished critics remains convinced sounds like Elmo) can be a little jarring without necessarily widening the scope, but even so, the album makes for a remarkable gesture.
In case two cities (and more than two styles) weren’t enough, Costello added a couple additional tracks in New York, aided by guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline. “Newspaper Pane” accumulates surprises in a captivating narrative, turning from spoken word into a more melodic meditation. “Radio Is Everything” (and still a complicated salvation) accumulates poetic devices and, while not as strong a track as its partner, has its moments.
Costello builds his album around a variety of sounds, but never strays far from concerns about fear and aging. He struggles against the clock in “Hey Clockface/How Can You Face Me?” but he employs different voices for other issues, as when “We Are All Cowards Now” uses the lessons of time for a chilling piece about the fear some people have of having their weapons taken away. “Byline” uses ghosting to avoid the pain of a difficult goodbye, the fear of that conversation replaced by the discovery of being given up bit by bit. Memory can bring harm as we head toward a different sort of ghostliness, and Costello confronts these issues in a wealth of musical and verbal language.
It may not make for a precise philosophy, but Costello the artist (unlike his singer in “No Flag”) continues to have a surfeit of ideas. He mixes them together wonderfully to make Hey Clockface a strange and mature success.