Best of 2020: 26. Elvis Costello ‘Hey Clockface’

My relationship with Elvis Costello’s music goes back to a double CD compilation that was released to cash in around the time he recorded his version of ‘She’ to feature on the soundtrack of ‘Notting Hill’. Looking back now, it has one hell of a tracklist. From ‘Pump It Up’ past ‘Shipbuilding’ and on to ‘God Give Me Strength’, all within 40 odd tracks. It pointed the way for what would follow in the twenty-odd years since. A ferociously creative force who clearly thrives when pushing himself beyond the familiar, Costello has tried on many hats, both musical and sartorial. 


My first ever published review was, somewhat bafflingly, a full page piece in an early issue of The Word (or simply Word, as it was in the early days) covering ‘North’ and a batch of reissues that happened to be coming out around the same time. Quite why Paul Du Noyer thought I was the writer for that gig, I’ll never know but I’m eternally grateful that he did. I was quite partial to ‘North’ and I loved those 2CD reissue sets that Edsel and Rhino put out between them across the Noughties. Buying up his catalogue non-chronologically and with a manic energy that could only exist in an original branch of Fopp, I was equally fascinated by ‘Punch The Clock’ and his often stunning collaboration with Anne Sofie Von Otter, ‘For The Stars’

As a consequence, I’ve never been troubled by his stylistic lurches and his willingness to ignore the prevailing wind. One album might be country rock, the next a collaboration with members of The Roots. What makes ‘Hey Clockface’ so intriguing is that it takes this dismissive attitude to genre to its logical conclusion and weaves piano ballads, old-time swing, crunchy beats and spoken word pieces into one, not entirely cohesive whole. I love it, flaws and all. 

There are moments. So many moments. The woozy trumpet of ‘Radio Is Everything’. The resonant flugelhorn and brief burst of pure falsetto on ‘The Whirlwind’. The early hours fragility in ‘What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?’ “I read by line by line by line / That old sarcastic valentine / That you denied you’d sent to me / Then took it back.” In fact, the whole of ‘Byline’, from its magical piano opening onwards, especially the repetition of the title and tingling sense of the epic that descends early and doesn’t let up until its final words.  And many more moments.

Is it a concept album? No. Would it have ended up like this without lockdown? Almost certainly not. But, tempting as it is to try and impose a theory upon this approach, to seek out coherence where one actually suspects there quite gleefully is none, the curious tracklist is a rare delight. If Costello has never convinced you in the past, he won’t manage it now. His voice is – ever-increasingly – not for everyone, but the occasional rough edges suggest an artist having great fun in the studio, using music to find a way through the stasis of 2020. 2018’s ‘Hey Now’ was a cohesive, poppy grower which has matured nicely. I’ve no idea what I’ll think of ‘Hey Clockface‘ in a few years from here but, for now, in the oppression of mundane repetition its desire to be different, its capacity to unsettle and its restless imperfect energy is very, very welcome indeed. 

Buy ‘Hey Clockface’ on vinyl from Badlands

Where it all began

The latest dip into my oh-so-very self indulgent archives goes right back to the start. As I was lugging bags of shopping out of the boot, the phone rang and I answered, suitably flustered, with a curt, ‘Hello?’, not recognising the number. I was greeted with, “Hi, it’s Paul Du Noyer at Word magazine.” Being more than a little bit of a music press geek, this was a fairly unbelievable moment. My little piece on some Elvis Costello reissues that I’d emailed off a week or so previous had not only been received and read by Paul Du Noyer, but he actually liked it! And here he was, offering me the chance to do a page review of his new one, with the reissues rolled in for good measure. It’s one of those moments that I’ll always remember and it was an instant shot of euphoria that’s hard to top. Looking back at it now, its not too bad. The bus analogy could be worse and you can tell I used to absorb anything and everything I read  – I still regularly read six titles – but I reckon it’s not a bad debut!

Feel free to tell me otherwise!




North (and re-issues of Get Happy! Trust and Punch The Clock)

Deutsche Grammophon

The odds of hearing Elvis Costello singing; “I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush” were never very high. It is not what you would expect of him. Which is probably why he’s gone and done it. One suspects he’s not keen on the idea of being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label was a College Chart Number One in America. Other recent work included providing the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune ‘Smile’ for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and rather charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, ‘When I Was Cruel’, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, ‘North’ plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to pretend does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On ‘Still’, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious ‘Juliet Letters’, and their appearance appears to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. ‘Let Me Tell You About Her’ is virtually a “conventional” love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture Costello gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello’s baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpectedly, but utterly forgivably, a tad clumsy.

‘North’ comes to its close with ‘I’m In The Mood Again’, thus completing our hero’s journey towards his new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody reflects the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the remastered ‘Punch The Clock’ Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to the happy ending”, but, ever one to contradict, ‘North’ appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Get Happy!’ and ‘Trust’ have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of ‘High Fidelity’ aping the style of Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and practically the entire ‘Punch The Clock’ album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections as wide-ranging as mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on ‘Shipbuilding’ and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of ‘Get Happy!’. The remastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of ‘Punch The Clock’, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It’s hard to imagine ‘North’ selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can’t imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he’s wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It’s not a classic, but it’s a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from ‘When I Was Cruel’ to ‘North’, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging twenty years from now, God only knows.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2003

It was a ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ reference.

Regular readers of the blog may be aware of my penchant for record shopping on a Bank Holiday Monday. It just seems so right. Not that it ever seems particularly wrong. Hmm, this may just be a thinly veiled excuse for buying more records. Anyhoo, as I had a wander round my nearest music emporiums of choice I noticed that Elvis Costello‘s ‘Momofuku‘ had indeed crept into the UK shops. Fopp were blasting it out at a quite magnificent volume and had it prominently displayed on their new releases shelf. However, the most disturbing moment of the whole process was the discovery of a copy of the vinyl in their meagre racks. £13! Bargain. Pretty much the price I paid for the US import that’s not proved to be particularly speedy. It’s moments like this, moments when you think that you’ve cleverly circumvented the machinations of ‘the man’ only to have your face – or ears, I guess, as this is music related – very much rubbed in it (whatever the figurative ‘it’ is), that really piss me off. I shouldn’t be annoyed. I’ll have the album in no time at all on vinyl, a kind soul shared their bonus download code with me so that I can actually enjoy it already and yet, there I was smarting at its presence in the racks. I have to confess, dear reader, that I did spend a minute or two attempting to conjure a reason why I needed two copies of ‘Momofuku’ on vinyl thus rendering the purchase of this copy an absolute necessity. Thankfully, common sense kicked in (a new experience in a record shop) and I left without it. That said, if it doesn’t turn up soon I may lose the plot.

Fopp are in the middle of a big clearout, with plenty of CDs at £3. Once the price is this low, I find it quite hard to avoid temptation and duly left with six titles from the vast range on offer. I still feel a little dirty shopping in Fopp in the same quantities I used to. It’s a bit like when you see celebrities so desperate to appear ‘trendy’ that they start wearing a Stooges T-shirt for every TV interview they do. Fopp is HMV in a Sex Pistols T-shirt, and it’s not quite right.

Oh, and this blog proved how scarily instant the interweb can be yesterday. Mere hours after I’d posted about the new Costello album, a quote of the entire post appeared on the exact forums I referred to, link and everything. Kind of appropriate once you’ve heard the lyrics to ‘No Hiding Place’, the opener on ‘Momofuku‘. Hi all. Be regular readers, won’t you?

In a nutshell, I’ve bought lots of records.

I’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable week, piling up CDs wherever there was space remaining. After getting hooked on the Trashcan Sinatras last weekend, the three albums of theirs I didn’t own arrived from various different parts of the UK. have an insane 4 for £15 offer on that, at the time I ordered, included the deluxe edition of Joy Division‘s ‘Still‘ amongst the spoils. Add in The Loose Salute, The Blue Nile, Northern Portrait and Ladybug Transistor after hearing them played on Gideon Coe‘s show and it’s been rather a splendid week for new tunes.

The Northern Portrait EP , ‘The Fallen Aristocracy‘ is a little charmer. Four songs of prime British indie jangle a la The Smiths, only made by a trio from Denmark. Even the cover looks like a Smiths record, which earns them a bonus points or two. Sample a track via the mux if you happen to be interested. See the previous post about this EP to order yourself a copy.

I’m now incredibly glad that I pursued The Trashcan Sinatras after ‘How Can I Apply?‘ piqued my interest last week. Its parent album, ‘A Happy Pocket’ is a total charmer of Teenage Fanclub proportions, while ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ – their second album – also has a touch of late Beatles to it. The harmonies are divine and every last second is so delicately constructed I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t know about it before this week. That said, when you look at it on Amazon, most of the reviewers seem intent upon mentioning Travis, which is enough to make you think again. The aforementioned, ‘How Can I Apply?‘ has also made it to the mux this week, and their first three albums, while not in print, can be tracked down for reasonable prices by trawling all of the different online outlets for second-hand music.

Momofuku‘ to you and you and ba-ba-bahh. Bonkers name for an album, even more bonkers approach to distribution in the UK, but nevertheless, the new Elvis Costello is upon us. It’s actually really rather good. It was supposed to be double vinyl and download only, but it didn’t quite work out like that and a CD copy will be in all good stores from tomorrow. Which is more than can be said about the vinyl edition. That said, it would seem that it has just reached British shores as Amazon briefly had two copies in stock on Friday. HMV are knocking it out cheap too, but to me it seems like the sort of thing you should buy from an indie store. You know, one of the shops that carried on supporting vinyl even when the big stores were trying to persuade us that we didn’t need it anymore. The ones who haven’t just come flooding back to it because they sense the opportunity for a quick buck. Anyway, despite the fact that the album actually came out in the US on April 22nd didn’t seem to bother the distributors in the UK who, despite seemingly having told most shops that the UK release date would essentially be the same, have been unable to supply any copies to any shops until the last couple of days, thus bringing the vinyl release date, at least in the UK, in line with the CD’s appearance. Dopey, if you ask me. I ended up buying my vinyl from the US because I was tired of waiting, and it’s this kind of balls-up that the industry could do without right now. Some of the more charming if neurotic types over at the Elvis Costello forums have decided it’s all a deliberate part of Costello’s plan to piss off the UK because some posh people went to Glastonbury the other year. Is it fuck.

Oh, and the Portishead album’s actually rather good. There had been mumblings about the record after a sub-standard leak appeared some time ago, but the beefy and brutal sound of the double vinyl has made me sit up and take notice. ‘The Rip’ may well be one of the finest tunes released this year. Still think that £40 boxset’s a big old load of bollocks though.

A nice little shuffle

It’s the question that music obsessives hate even more than, "do you really need a fifth copy of that?" It’s the moment when the brain melts and it becomes impossible to act rationally. It’s the moment when somebody says, "so, what are your top three songs of all time."

How are you supposed to be able to answer that off the top of your head? It depends on the weather, time of year, the bloody time of day on some occasions. You can’t just nail three songs on, can you? Or can you? I try from time to time and get abso-bloody-lutely nowhere. I keep using bloody today. I’m trying to avoid too much fucking near the start of the piece. Ah well, not to worry.

Anyway, the good lady wanted her mp3 player filling up prior to a long journey and was sat alongside me as we scrolled through a quite disturbing number of tracks in iTunes. Now, I still don’t find this anywhere near as satisfying as rummaging through the racks for hours on end, but it offers a different perspective on the collection. What it’s really good at is throwing up odd songs that you’d pretty much forgotten about. 4 Non Blondes anyone? Clarence Carter’s ‘Patches’? Oh yes, just two of the delights I heard again this afternoon.

As these long-ignored tracks blare out, you suddenly find yourself thinking how good they are. Before long you’re vowing to listen to them regularly, only for them to slip into oblivion as quickly as they came forth.

So, rather than do a ‘my favourite tunes’ piece, I thought I’d embark on a shuffling project. I know it’s not a new idea, just look at most music based message boards right now and you’ll see this topic with umpteen replies. But, as I find it makes me dig out old records and influences my listening habits for the week, it might make interesting reading. Where possible, I’ll include the opportunity to hear the songs I refer to. Right then, let’s get this going with…

1. Maximo Park – Nosebleed

Loved ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ more than I could ever have imagined. I’d written Maximo Park off as another one of those ‘famous for fifteen’ indie types. I was, quite unreservedly, wide of the mark on that one. Both of their albums to date have the feel of a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection about them, and this is a fine example of why. Any album that can overlook this, and yet still release four singles as fan-fucking-tastic as ‘Our Velocity’, ‘Books From Boxes’, ‘Girls Who Play Guitars’ and ‘Karaoke Plays’ must be doing something right. Can’t recommend them enough, and from what I’ve witnessed of them on telly and in print they seem like truly splendid chaps.

This performance of the track is from the Glasto 2007 footage that convinced me of their genius once and for all. Enjoy.

2. Super Furry Animals – Y Gwyneb Iau

I have to be honest about this one. When it first started I couldn’t be absolutely certain what it was. It is, it transpires, a lovely little tune. I’m accustomed to taking ‘Mwng’, the album from which this is taken, in one sitting as a result of having little understanding of the song titles, and thus the lyrics. Any Super Furries fans reading this who don’t have this little gem of a record should set about rectifying that oversight. It catches Gruff et al just before everything had to be quite so BIG. As close to a bare bones record as they’ve ever done, it contains some splendid moments, in particular Ysbeidiau Heulog. Listen here.

3. Bill Wells and Isobel Campbell – Somebody’s On My Mind

A recent addition to the collection, this one. Weirdly, the death of Kevin Greening over Christmas (see my other, more specialist, blog) brought about my interest in pretty much everything Bill Wells has ever done. I was listening back to a tape of Kevin filling in on Xfm’s ‘X-Posure’ show and he used a track from ‘Also In White’, Wells’ 2002 album in the background. Further exploration of his back catalogue led me to this little beauty. Combining minimalist beats and ethereal bleeps, the mini-album from which this comes, ‘Ghost Of Yesterday’ is a slow-burning collection of rather fragile pieces of music that serve to underline Isobel Campbell’s quite magnificent talent as a singer. Recommended, although nab Bill Wells’ ‘Also In White’ first. Listen here.

4. Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet – Eleanor Rigby

Hmm. Not sure about the origins of this one. It’s labelled as ‘A Royal Performance’, although that could mean anything. It’s rather nice, in the sense that pretty much anything with The Brodsky Quartet involved tends to be. It’s a little bit ponderous, and the presence of Sir Thumbsaloft ensures the usual amount of teeth-itching. In fact, Costello doesn’t appear to be on the bloody thing at all. It’s sparse and beautiful thanks to the Brodskys, but I’d rather have heard Costello having a go at it. If you wish to subject yourself.

5. The Innocence Mission – Now The Day Is Over

This band came to my attention as a result of that lovely, lovely man, Richard Hawley. He has quite a regular presence on his own forums over at his website, and in amongst many other topics he’ll occasionally mention music he’s enjoying. He refered to the heartbreakingly delicate, ‘Tomorrow On The Runway’ by this band last year and over time I’ve added a number of their albums to my collection. This is the title track of one of their latter day albums. It’s not their best, but it’s still pretty decent. Karen Peris’ lead vocals remain as eerie and slightly juvenile in their delivery but the overall sense that you’re hearing something special remains throughout. Go get ‘Tomorrow On The Runway’. This, on the other hand, is here.

No more than seven years behind the times

Musical Revelations Of The Week:

Paul Weller – ‘Heliocentric‘ – Yup, finger on the pulse of yoof music, once again. As I said a week ago, I’ve finally picked up the two Weller solo albums that were missing from my collection, this one and ‘Heavy Soul.’ I won’t go over the reasons for the delay again, but suffice to say I’ve been proved wrong. Somebody I work with is absolutely obsessive about Weller and recently attempted to persuade me that this album was far better than critics judged it on release. I allowed him to blather on for a little while, before dismissing such fanciful notions with but a waft of my eyelashes. However, I think he might actually be right. I’ve been playing it quite a lot this week – that and ‘Lady’s Bridge‘ – and it’s really starting to win me over. It’s not so much individual songs that stand out, but the overall mood that it creates. It’s soulful, it’s got that earthy-rock sound that has more than a little blues in there and his singing is marvellous. There is, however, one tune that does stand out, and that’s the closer, ‘Love-less.’ One of Weller’s heart-breaking, piano-led ballads that just floors me. A delight, not to mention a surprise. The spiffing chap himself was in the Sunday Times magazine today which I happened upon as a result of switching from the Sindy as a result of the free World Cup guide. I’m such an oval-ball whore. That seems so much worse written down than it did in my head.
Booker T. & The MGs – Picked up the ‘Stax Profiles‘ CD from Fopp the other day because a) it was £4 b) it’s compiled by Elvis Costello. I’ve always been quite fond of BT&MGs, but the ‘Complete Stax/Volt Singles‘ and their ‘Green Onions‘ album had always seemed to suffice. This album was something of a revelation and Costello must take some of the credit for his wonderfully enthusiastic sleevenotes. Sitting between the speakers and giving it my full attention I realised that I’d done this lot a disservice in the past. Don’t just judge them on ‘Green Onions‘ and don’t write them of as background music. At this price, you can just buy it rather than have me try and capture the raw power of these tracks on a blog on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Super Furry Animals – ‘Hey Venus!‘ – I was convinced that, having waited an extra week for it, the vinyl edition was going to be a shit pressing that sounded like somebody was eating a bag of salt and vinegar throughout, but no, the LP of this quite marvellous record sounds ace. In addition to that, you’ve really got to get it just to see that artwork in its 12″x12″ glory.
Non-musical Revelations Of The Week:
The Smoking Room – Got series two on DVD this week and it reignited my love affair with this programme. The laws of the land ensure that a third series would be highly improbable, but that doesn’t stop the two that exist being laugh-out-loud funny throughout. A beautifully observed bunch of regular characters reaching into double figures spend each episode doing little more than talking. This would be shit, but for the perfectly crafted dialogue and the meticulous performances from the cast. Video samples from here.
The Likely Lads – It’s my firmly-held belief that ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?’ is one of the all time great comedy shows but I’d never got round to buying the DVD of the surviving episodes of the original, black and white series from the sixties. The Beeb, back in the days before archive material was the never-ending source of money, had wiped a great deal of legendary material – Pete and Dud and Dad’s Army suffered similarly cruel fates, but these seven episodes remain. They’re bloody funny. To be fair, it’s the later episodes that stand up the most, but still, I remain hugely jealous of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, writers of not only this, but the follow-up series and another of the greatest shows of all time, Porridge and its follow-up, Going Straight. The Likely Lads owes a great deal of its entertainment value to the performances of Rodney Bewes and James Bolam who are superb throughout. Their entirely believeable relationship adds a dramatic elements to events, as well ensuring that every gag is milked to its full potential. Wonderful stuff, and currently going rather cheap. (You can get the surviving episodes of this series, plus both series of ‘WHTTLL?’ in a box for £17.99 here)
Gideon Coe on 6music moving – I was rather dismayed to learn that one of the most under-rated presenters on British radio is being moved from his morning slot to the equivalent show at the other end of the day. From 22nd October, Gid will be hosting 10pm-1am, while shouty E4 tyke, George Lamb will do a straight swap into the mid-morning show. Is it a genius move to provide music lovers with an excellent late night listening experience now that Radcliffe’s been moved up the schedule or is it yet more dumbing down of 6music to the point that intelligent presenters can no longer be heard during daylight hours?

Get Mildly Chirpy!

Here’s a classic bit of Costello to enjoy, continuing the theme from yesterday:

And now, to continue the other theme, here’s a live performance of ‘Demons‘ by the Super Furries from the 1998 NME awards:

To conclude, another SFA live performance, this time from Glastonbury 2007. They decided to redo ‘Northern Lites‘ in a Teenage Fanclub stylee:

Everyday I Write The Blog

An Elvis Costello promo CD featuring an in-depth interview about his career up to 1986 came in this morning’s post and proved to be as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be. Costello is not a man to humour an interviewer, nor to say what is expected simply because it is easy. Listening to him throwing in afterthoughts across the interviewer’s next question and replying bluntly to questions that he considers incredibly wide of the mark is a delight. I can fully understand why this assertiveness (arrogance?) puts people off EC, but for me it’s just another part of his appeal.
While listening, I was shuffling through the singles boxsets from a few years back, that covered the same period. Why on earth I thought I needed these in addition to the 2CD remasters of the original albums I’m not sure, but they’re delightful items with the odd track that hasn’t appeared elsewhere. Not that they necessarily deserve to have done so. Anyway, it got me to thinking about how Costello’s is the one autobiography above all others that I’d love to read. As it stands, collecting together the essays in the booklets accompanying all of the 2CD reissues does a reasonable job of it, but they’re on such a small scale compared to the likely delights of Costello in full flight. He’s not one to mince his words, nor to be tactful for tact’s sake. He does seem to always strive to be fair in his assessment of things. For example, he’s quite happy to point out that a record like ‘Goodbye Cruel World‘ is, well, a bit shit. I point you in the direction of the Elvis Costello Fan Forums if you’d like to read these booklets to give you a sense of what I’m on about.
A bit more Costello musing to come over the next few days, along with some prolonged focus on the Super Furries, who have once again been shafted by the record buying public, getting to 46, 46?!! with ‘Show Your Hand’. Hence my decision to, er, decorate the site a bit for the time being.

Great show, Steve

On a musical note, may I recommend the Elvis Costello DVD, ‘A Case For Song’, featuring a BBC concert performance from 1996 that combines different strands of his career, including a section with The Brodsky Quartet. Finally out on DVD, and with 100 minutes of loveliness, it’s going cheap at a music emporium near you. It’ll be in the revelations, but just in case you want a head start!

On a non-musical note, it’s always nice to find out that Steve Wright’s been made to look a dick.
Click here to find out how this time.