Release Date: Oct 30, 2020
Record label: Concord
Hey Clockface arrived quickly on the heels of Look Now, but where that 2018 album seemed constructed as classicist Elvis Costello, drawing upon his strengths as a melodicist and the muscle of his regular backing band the Imposters, this 2020 affair feels as if it was designed to surprise. It comes into focus quite slowly, with reeds and strings murmuring in a quiet drone before Costello launches into the spoken word of "Revolution #49. " The spell is broken in a flurry of gnarled guitars that usher in "No Flag," a transition that establishes how Hey Clockface doesn't follow any particular path.
Following Elvis Costello’s 2018 album Look Now (recorded with his long-time backing band The Imposters), this new affair is a very different beast. Starting off with “Revolution #49” and its spoken word poetry layered on top of what sounds like some of the late ‘80s melodies he wrote on songs like “Any King’s Shilling” and “Last Boat Leaving” (both from 1989’s Spike), the album then explodes with the corrosive and incendiary “No Flag,” a track as fine as any Costello has written in years. Recorded by himself in Helsinki and full of piss and vinegar, it’s the kind of song that fans who only like the younger, more aggressive Costello tend to venerate and favor compared to much of his quieter, more reflective, and experimental material.
Whoever said that rock'n'roll is a young person's game was waiting to be proven wrong. Few know this better than Elvis Costello. Since he was a twenty-something in black-rimmed glasses, Costello's talent for arrangement and pastiche pointed toward fruitful twilight years, particularly as he strayed from meat-and-potatoes rock and began to dabble in musical styles less invested in the cult of youth.
After a career spanning more than 40 years, it’s safe to assume Elvis Costello has reached the stage where he can just do anything he wants. His 31st studio album, Hey Clockface, is a dizzying, sometimes bewildering, dash through a whole load of genres and, even though he’s reached his mid-60s, that famous fire in his belly is yet to be extinguished. Maybe the restless feel to Hey Clockface is down to circumstances – the recording of the album began earlier in the year after he was forced to abandon his tour due to the worldwide pandemic.
Each track takes on a range of different emotions and dynamics, and the result is something that achieves in its sound the surrealist potency of Jean Cocteau, combined with the rich composition of movie pioneers not too distant from the likes of Georges Méliès. Because of this, it emits a level of depth that leaves you sometimes not really able to pinpoint what's what, and other times feeling yourself being drawn in - the likes of "What Is It That I Need That I Don't Really Have?" and "Byline" will imbue the latter, with a sort of rich tapestry of intimate musings that instantly make you feel transported to the cities in which they were created. Conversely, "We're All Cowards Now' is more insistent and somewhat angry in its demeanour.
Towards the end of his 31st album, Elvis Costello starts to speak directly to his audience. "They say I have the perfect face for radio," he mutters as jazzy instrumentation warps in the background. It's a classic witticism from an artist who built his career on being sharp and observational, but ….