Elvis Costello: Hey Clockface (Concord/digital outlets)

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Elvis Costello: Hey Clockface (Concord/digital outlets)

So how does Elvis Costello, now umpteen albums into his career – which has embraced phlegmatic New Wave post-punk, country music, folk-rock, work with the Brodsky Quartet, Allen Toussaint and Burt Bacharach, the Wise Up Ghost revisions with the Roots and more – keep himself, and just as importantly us, interested?

By opening this 31ststudio album with a mournful Middle Eastern melody and a spoken word piece (Revolution #49), by bringing in a French ensemble as well as guitarist-without-portfolio Nels Cline, by firing off the scratchy salvo of No Flag which sounds like he hasn't aged or become more calm since the bitter fury of Pump It Up more than four decades ago: “Why should anybody listen to me, I'm tearing up the sheets your love left stained . . .”

Whether you like him or not – and that once irritating vibrato which ruined many an album here returns, mercifully briefly, on the lovely piano ballad The Whirlwind – you'd have to concede that Elvis Costello still has it in him to find new approaches and ideas.

What critics note about this album is that it was recorded in three separate locales: Helsinki for solo sessions, in New York during isolation, and in Paris with that small ensemble and longtime fellow traveller Steve Nieve on keyboards.

There may be the music hall/retro-Kinks title track but he reconstitutes Nawlins beats in the nasty Hetty O'Hara Confidential (“who's got your girlfriend [then in a wickedly up-close echo] and who had her first?”) and in The Last Confession of Vivian Whip creates a flickering cinematographic black'n'white miniature.

He drops in a jazz-noir, Spillane-with-a heart/21stcentury fascism behind the shoulder holster on the ambient-cum-spoken word piece of the excoriating Radio is Everything: “The lie I tell doesn't matter, or if I should deceive you doesn't matter . . . radio is everything . . .”

At this point you might wish Costello – who did that terrific Spectacle TV series of interviews with music – would embrace a radio broadcast, not in the manner of Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour (although he could doubtless do that) but in the way Ken Nordine did: by making people uncomfortable.

He can still be the venomous, character-driven songwriter as on the tightly wrought and unusually-arranged Newspaper Pane from the perspective of some acerbic, fallen star not waiting for her close-up or moment to exact vengeance -- even if it goes unheard beyond her own head -- is an absolute, if unusual highpoint.

“You think you know me, maybe you do,” he sings on The Whirlwind.

Well maybe we do, but actually – on the evidence of this and his capacity to surprise and reinvent himself – we don't.

And that, for old and latter day Costello followers, is excellent news.


You can hear this album on Spotify here


There are numerous album reviews and Costello interviews at Elsewhere starting here

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Mike P - Nov 19, 2020

I have become quite a fan of Elvis Costello over a few years. His sound or was it his voice grew on me and I now have a number of his albums. Two I bought recently on Trade me "For the stars" with Anne Sofie Von Otter which is quite unlike any of the other albums I have heard and, "Kojak Variety" A great album. I even scored a really good copy of the Juliet Letters LP in great condition. I shall keep my eye out for this one and will probably end up adding it to my growing collection of his albums.

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