Revisiting a Costello
classic 30 years on
1983…Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock was born to be misunderstood and underestimated. After all, following the incendiary explosions of his first four albums and his successful “experimentation” into Motown, club, and country western stylings, Costello had released Imperial Bedroom the prior year. Towering in literary emotional exhaustion, that album left little wiggle room for anything else to follow. Fitting then that Elvis’ eighth opus immediately explodes with a power pop challenge to his critics and possibly the whole world too…Let Them All Talk.
“These are the best years of your life / Now they’re here and gone.” There’s a moment, maybe as one turns 30, when that the first burn of brutal youth flames out, and you’re left standing around your life, maybe hands down, wondering what’s now, wondering what’s left. At 30, a time for reflection…and at 30, time to relook at this album left in the shadows.
From the obvious pun of its title on, Punch chronicles the violence brought to character by just putting in time. Elvis wraps a collection of snapshots in a beguiling bright pop enthusiasm that flirts across the blacker heart of domestic dysfunction found in the home and in the nation. In Get Happy!, he did Motown; here, Costello reinvents the catchy upbeat for Thatcher’s Britain. Yes, “Pills and Soap’s” vitriol paints a surreal condemnation of politics and social division, but it’s the sonic near-exception in a daylight playground of power-packed TKO horns and Afrodiziak vocal-backed (Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine) tunes.
Infectiously playful, the commercial standout “Everyday I Write the Book” succinctly crystallizes the album’s themes of domestic failure, love, and owning the moment. “All your compliments and all your cutting remarks are captured here in my quotation marks.” A novel tale of literary passion, where, if the singer can’t win the romance, at least the songwriter still owns the story. Like “a national anthem sung in different keys,” director Don Lett’s video for Book envisions this intertwining with a scary prescience of the tragedy to be experienced by the British royal house: a frustrated Prince Charles courts his Diana, she distracted by Douglas Fairbanks on the telly.
But by 1983 punk’s royal couple had already been put to rest with Sid’s ashes laid atop his lover fatale Nancy’s grave, and the first suggestion set in that rock-and-roll, even in its rawest punk form, couldn’t save the world…that, in fact, later in the hands of Disney radio, rock could only sell it. Punch the Clock skittered across the frying pan of Elvis’ critical fan’s expectations. If we all couldn’t hear the depth for the flare, at least in “Shipbuilding” Costello crafted in melody and words the universal pain felt in the dysfunctional affairs of home and state, a haunting refrain that echoes 30 years later:
With all the will in the world /
Diving for dear life /
When we could be diving for pearls.
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