Though the title track of Elvis Costello’s latest album describes him in a battle against time, the English songwriter definitely has a habit for creating timeless listening experiences. In a career spanning over 40 years, Costello has earned the reputation of being a musical chameleon. While in his earlier years he cemented himself as a pioneering punk rock rebel, his more recent work is characterized by experimentation in a variety of styles from jazz to bluegrass. Regardless of the musical form he takes on, Costello has always stayed consistent with his sharp, witty vocals and off-beat persona.
Costello’s latest album, Hey Clockface, represents a continuation of his sonic exploration. Rather than delivering high energy, angsty punk rock tracks, Hey Clockface continues upon many of the ideas introduced in Costello’s earlier album, Look Now. The songs in Hey Clockface have a much slower tempo than what is typically found in Costello’s discography, allowing the tracks to relish in their rich instrumentation and production. If Costello has been known to deliver some burning shots of tequila, Hey Clockface serves the audience a full glass of fine wine.
Three of Hey Clockface’s tracks were recorded in Helsinki, while the rest were recorded in Paris along with a full band led by longtime Costello collaborator, Steve Nieve. The tracks recorded in Helsinki have an urgent, lo-fi sound. Costello’s voice sounds pent up as if he struggles to deliver the lines. “No Flag,” which was recorded in Helsinki, is full of cynical lyrics which match exceptionally well with the feel of the song. In contrast, the songs recorded in Paris are slower, jazzier and more subtle. These songs range from “I Do (Zula’s Song),” a slow jazz ballad with excellent woodwind and brass lines to “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip,” a sweet, slow piano tune which tells an interesting story through Costello’s emblematic songwriting mastery.
Listening to Costello sing on much slower tracks allows the listener to appreciate the subtle textures of Costello’s voice. His delivery of the bluesy political anthem “We Are All Cowards Now” is raspy and pleading as the character laments for a time before society became soft and vain. The powerful spoken word on “Revolution #49” and “Radio is Everything” demonstrate Costello’s impressive tonal range and ability to create interesting moods within his track lists.
Though the individual tracks on Hey Clockface demonstrate Costello’s mastery of the craft of songwriting, the overall production of the album is severely underwhelming. There are many thematic and musical links between the tracks on this album — such as the recurring theme of communication incongruities within relationships — but Costello’s album suffers from a severe lack of cohesion. The track list ricochets from lighthearted tunes with sweet lyrics to more serious songs interwoven with complex melodramatic textures. Though both songs are great in their own right, “No Flag’s” punchy, overdriven production doesn’t sound all too good on the same side of the richly produced and indulgent “I Do”. The result of this mismatch makes the album feel like a collection of b-sides left on the cutting room floor at multiple points in Costello’s career, stitched up and packaged for release.
The quality also varies jarringly between tracks on the album. Aside from the obvious tonal divide between the songs recorded in Paris and Helsinki, the difference in production quality from track to track is noticeable. In one extreme example, the vocals on “Radio is Everything” sound half baked, almost as if Costello’s voice was recorded through a laptop microphone. I even listened to this track through multiple audio sources to make sure the issue wasn’t just with me and it sounded just as uncomfortable no matter what I listened to it on. The unfortunate result of this lack of quality control is that the impact of the more brilliant moments and beautiful lyrics is reduced by distracting production.
Though it’s a bit of a mess, it’s a beautiful mess nonetheless. Hey Clockface proves what we already know about Costello: He’s a master at creating beautiful songs with compelling, intricate lyrics. Though Hey Clockface may not cut out to stand out among the many titans of Costello’s discography, it is certainly an album worth paying attention to, especially if you are looking to learn from a true master.
Daily Arts Contributor Kai Bartol can be reached at email@example.com.