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.