Culture, Music

Album Review: Hey Clockface by Elvis Costello

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It is a credit to a singer-songwriter who has been releasing albums since 1977 that when you hear the first track on his new release you think you might be listening to the wrong album.

Hey Clockface starts with a haunting Arabic refrain, using an instrument called a Serpent (described by wikipedia as ‘a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornett’).

The sensation is like being in a market in Marrakesh inhaling spices when suddenly you hear a voice from home telling you: “Love is the one thing we can save.”

The second track, ‘No Flag’ firmly lands us back on familiar Costello territory – an angry distorted guitar and a tale of a disintegrating relationship: “I’m tearing up the sheets that your love letters stained/ All of your magic powers have drained.”

As ever, there are lines which pinpoint vague thoughts which might have been buzzing around the back of your mind: “You may be joking but I don’t get the gag /I sense no future but time seems to drag,” he laments on the same song.

Overall the album doesn’t stay in one genre but echoes different styles from Costello’s back catalogue. A Radio 4 critic – Adam Mars-Jones if I remember correctly – once commented that Costello is less compelling when “leading the band”. There are some slower numbers, such as ‘The Last Confession of Vivian Whip,’ which verge on being ponderous despite the first-class lyrics. But the spoken word delivery of ‘Revolution#49’ and ‘Radio is Everything’ suggest that the 66-year-old Costello is trying out different vocal techniques in the late afternoon of his career.

But he can still out-pace a lively group of musicians, such as the so-called The Helsinki Sound – a nod to one of the pre-lockdown recording locations – and come out on top. In ‘Hetty O’Hara Confidential,’ he hardly stops for breath as he rattles off a tale of a gossip columnist sidelined by a professional mis-step and by social media: “They’ve got witch trials with witches to spare/And a jukebox jury full of judgement and fury.”

For me, the album’s stand out track is ‘I Do (Zula’s Song’).’ Its minor chords, foreboding atmosphere and confessional tone make it sound like a lost number from Brecht and Weill’s sublimely dark ‘The Threepenny Opera’ from 1920s Weimar Germany.

Hey Clockface requires some investment of time from the listener but it pays that attention back many times over.

About the author / 

David Keyworth

David Keyworth recently completed his MA Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He previously won a new poet’s bursary in the Northern Writers' Awards (New Writing North). His debut pamphlet 'The Twilight Shift' is available from WildPressed Books Find more of his work here:

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