Elvis Costello’s 31st album will undoubtedly divide fans. If you liked the more somber mood of Imperial Bedroom, The Juliet Letters, Painted From Memory, and North then Hey Clockface is probably going to work for you. Fans of Elvis’ rockier material do get a look in here on “No Flag,” a driving vamp not unlike “Tokyo Storm Warning” but with a few more melodic twists. But that’s about it. The rest of Hey Clockface is a cross between a jazzy beat poet-like spoken word slam (“Revolution #49,” “Radio is Everything,” and “Hetty O’Hara Confidential”) and a master-class in delicate songwriting craft and performance. As reader David Blumenstein cleverly quipped, the record is more ‘Eclectic Costello than Elvis.’
Most of the tunes here effortlessly conjure up a scene. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” sounds like a noir novel reads, with horns that transport you to some foggy late-night street scene somewhere. The once angry young man is now a master of the light touch, hanging clever lyrics over a very spare approach to instrumentation on lovely tracks like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?” and “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now.” But Costello really saves the best for last with the gorgeous piano ballad, “Byline.” The song is just one vivid example on this record of Costello’s still impressive vocal stylings. Listeners expecting another Armed Forces or Spike won’t find it here. But fans willing to grow with their artist will find in Hey Clockface a challenging collection of dynamic, sometimes jazzy, often tender songs and performances from an artist that now certainly warrants the appellation ‘mature.’
It’s not hard to find Elvis Costello. Hey Clockface is a chance to get reacquainted with a master who’s still got game.