Any career of 40 plus years takes a long and winding path. Elvis Costello’s is rare because his has followed his first statement: “My Aim is True.” Sometimes the path has wobbled, sprung from high to low and back again, but it never fails to regain its momentum.
This is true of Elvis’s “Hey Clockface,” the eclectic, brooding group of songs to follow up his recent masterwork and Grammy winner, “Look Now.” The latter album was unexpected, a depth charge after a long period of laying low. But Costello is a song machine. He can’t stop composing and finding new ways to approach the writing, the singing, the furthering of that original mission statement.
There are sounds we’ve never heard before on “Hey Clockface” coming from punk rock’s angry young man. That’s because the musicians are not the Attractions or the Imposters, with the exception of multi-talented pianist Steve Nieve. Costello recorded in Helsinki, Paris and New York and mixed by Sebastian Krys in Los Angeles. Recalling the Paris recording session, Costello said in a recent interview, “I sang live on the studio floor, directing from the vocal booth. We cut nine songs in two days. We spoke very little. Almost everything the musicians played was a spontaneous response to the song I was singing. I’d had a dream of recording in Paris like this, one day.”
The album is such a big meal that I’m focused right now on “No Flag,” which seems to mirror the empty reaction to politics now. It’s followed by a gorgeous ballad called “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now.” There are a couple of media send ups in “Newspaper Pane” and “Hetty O’Hara Confidential.” There are several ballads, in fact, and some spoken word which is kind of different. The ballad that closes the album, “Byline,” strikes me as something of an instant classic. I’m listening over and over to “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip” which Costello co-wrote with Steve Nieve and his wife Muriel. Again, beautiful and biting.
I guess the main difference between “Look Now” and “Hey Clockface” is that the former felt like a great summing up, almost a greatest hits of what I can do at my best for Elvis, and latter– at age 65 — is edgier and more experimental. He’s opening up new avenues with “Hey Clockface.”
Don’t miss it. And I’m coming back to it again after a few more listens. Bravo!