Hey Clockface (Concord/Universal)
Note to longtime listeners/first time callers approaching the new Elvis Costello record: this is not an album with The Imposters, let alone the Attractions. As far as I can tell there is only one of that species, Mr Steve Nieve (inevitably), involved. Very involved.
Translation: this is not a pop/rock record and some of you will inevitably pine for a set more meaty and beaty, crying out in your living rooms “why can’t he make a record like the ones he did when he was really good and that, and not faffing about with – urgh – jazz and electronicy bits, pre-Presley ballads and – what the hell??? – spoken word tracks?”.
Yes indeed, there are two – count ‘em kids, two – tracks where Costello speaks rather than sings, over some minimalist musical undercarriage, in a manner more akin to a black skivvy-wearing beardy passing the chicken basket around for tips than someone wielding a signature-range Fender Jazzmaster in your face.
We’ll get to them in a minute, but now we know what Hey Clockface isn’t, can I say what it is? Um, no.
As you’ll find out next week in this very space, via my multi-part interview with the man, this is an album recorded, mostly before The Plague descended, in discrete sections, in different cities, with different lineups, including purely solo - and no intention originally that they coexist.
So there are songs played with rough-cut electronic roots and beat poet delivery, somewhat reminiscent of his Thatcher-baiting releases as The Imposter; songs which wear a tuxedo and work to a muted brass accompaniment with jazz roots; some which might remind you of his rhythm-and-prickliness collaboration with The Roots, including snap-jawed guitar; intimate ones that might come from his crooner past, a few tracks later, from the McCartney end of his balladry, and then at the end of the record, a song which nods to Joni Mitchell, specifically both the original and the later, orchestrated versions of Both Sides Now.
And there’s a song, Hetty O’Hara Confidential, which is a one-man operation (from his Helsinki sessions) of stabbing beats, deliberately untutored keyboards, half-toasting/half-singing and knobbly noises, that blows in and disturbs the furniture with glee.
Sounds a mess? Nah, far from it. It doesn’t make any immediate sense, sure, and it may end up being dipped into rather than played right through, but it comes at you with the kind of busy extravagance of the degustation menu. Or the fractured year of our lord 2020.
You may not love everything here, but you’d be a serious grump – or someone who hasn’t bought a record since Blood & Chocolate - if you found nothing to satisfy.
After all the slightly tearing-at-the-seams emotion of The Whirlwind, which is closer to leider than Leader Of The Pack (come on, give me that) has a lonely trumpet line that once might have been played by Chet Baker, and that was fine by the rockists 35 years ago wasn’t it? And if you turn slightly angled to the electro-rock No Flag that guitar, and that bustling momentum, might have enlivened Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind. Sort of.
Anyway, others could enjoy how the elegant woodwind and brass ensemble behind the acoustic guitar in They’re Not Laughing At Me Now shifts gear halfway through, with the arrival of a more plangent Nieve piano and bass and drums, but reclaims its space by song’s end to put you in mind of an easy Randy Newman.
That same lineup – from the Paris sessions - leans into the clarinet swing and wide-checked jacket singing of Hey Clockface How Can You Face Me Now, but pulls right back behind the piano, to just lightly brush against the beautiful, reimagined 1930s ballad, The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip, and the repurposed 1950s-style slow waltz of What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?
We Are All Cowards Now, one of a handful with clear lyrical connection to the world beset by a year of biblical ugliness, touches on clubland tonally (moody piano, one-step-back guitar), Pills & Soap melodically, and Costello’s early-80s attitude, thematically (morals more easily tweeted than observed; hypocrisy rampant; who’s going to say the truth?) and this attitude connects most effectively with the grim-eyed, more rock-feeling Newspaper Zane where individual freedom is deconstructed, and doesn’t fare well.
Ironically, Newspaper Zane was co-written by jazz trumpeter Michael Leonhart and features jazz-leaning guitarist Bill Frisell, which does highlight the precariousness of making hard-line pre-judgements with any non-Imposters/Attractions album.
Speaking of pre-judgements, the two spoken word tracks, the Maynard-in-Egypt album opener, Revolution 49, and the film noir voiceover-like, I Can’t Say Her Name, will polarise if not outright antagonise. They’re actually well done, but will require a lot of us to get past a life-long aversion to the form.
There’s no such problem with Byline, or as Friends might have titled it, The One That Makes You Think Of Joni.
There’s a breakup, a line of bitterness, silence regretted more than words and an assertion of only looking forward when really it’s all being lived in the review. Around it is offered trumpet, woodwind, banks of voices, and timpani, but they really are secondary to the gorgeous wistfulness and subtle impact of the Nieve/Costello/piano/voice combination.
In one sense, it’s a song which might have appeared at any stage of Costello’s long career, but in truth it bears the mark of experience not just in what it does, and does so well, but in all the things it doesn’t do yet still suggests.
Next week: Elvis Costello talks about the circuitous birth of Hey Clockface - from the fresh territory of Finland to a busy cabin in Canada, via Paris and New York. “I didn’t really have any plan; I was just making music”.