It’s worth noting for all the fans hoping for more Alison, Veronica, or Oliver’s Army poppy single era Costello, that Elvis has left that particular building. He’s not even in the same street or city come to think of it. His latest album Hey Clockface is best compared to Bowie’s The Next Day. Here we have an elder statesman of British music who has reached the comfortable place in their career where they can do whatever they like. And it seems Elvis Costello likes to record rock/jazz/pop albums in Paris, New York and Helsinki. He likes to fill said album with wordplay, curios and the most interesting songs he’s written in decades.
It’s a mad little album. The music ranges from EDM beats to murky Suthuhn Drawhl piano. From flugelhorn to mellotron and back again. It’s certainly the best mainstream album that could also be used as an Advanced Higher music Who’s Who? The only thing that stops this album from being all over the place is the consistency of Costello himself. His voice hasn’t changed since his debut album in 1977.
Even when he launches into the staccato jazz of the titular Hey Clockface, he draws you in with his ridiculous Randy Newman/Bob Dylan voice. You can hear him smiling through the music and that makes all the difference. He’s a musician happy to experiment, overjoyed to write and fulfilled entirely by making music.
The Whirlwind proves he can still tug the heartstrings – a short, piano-driven, contemplation of a drifter’s life. But the jarring percussion on Hetty O’Hara Confidential may turn some listeners off. It’s the musical equivalent of a slide tackle and not every listener will be on the right team. Newspaper Pane flexes Costello’s wordplay muscles but the spoken word Radio Is Everything sounds like a self-indulgent documentary narration.
There’s a lot to like here, it’s just a little overlong and not very refined. Costello could easily spend the rest of life trotting out the Greatest Hits and it’s encouraging to see him play around with electronic sound and a litany of other musical interest. The only question is whether he’ll spend time refining this experimentation and delivering a masterpiece, or whether he’s already off experimenting with other stuff.
It would be a shame if Hey Clockface was an aberration. But as aberrations go, it’s pretty enjoyable.