Elvis Costello’s newest effort combines his timeless lyrical ability with his diverse musical inspirations; sometimes resulting in creative hits, and other times seeming like a scattered mess. His willingness to expand into multiple genres is showcased almost every time the song shifts, but with time-centered thematics being the only string to tie them together, the track-by-track flow often feels awkward or unnatural. Other times, songs fail to represent Costello’s biggest strengths, withdrawing a lot of his songwriting impact in favor of highlighting his less-impressive vocals. The record accomplishes a respectable amount of compositional feats, but fails to coalesce into something more than a collection of explorative songs.
The stylistic voyage on Hey Clockface begins with the opener, “Revolution #49.” The oasis of peaceful woodwinds create a landscape for Costello’s voice to narrate his poetry over. The graceful instrumental veils over his more rugged timbre very effectively, to create a soothing introduction to the record. The track is outstanding at laying out an atmospheric, perhaps even ambient expectation for the record; but that exact expectation is immediately shattered upon the start of its follower.
The first half of this album’s dichotomy finds itself on the second cut, “No Flag.” Unlike its predecessor, its heavy, rock-and-roll energy aligns itself with much of Elvis Costello’s earlier discography, while at the same time staying inventive with these weird, “Twilight Zone”-esque interludes. Spacey, echoed, and distorted chords break up the harsh guitar tones, and anthemic verses in a fusion of garage rock and post-punk. Its breakaway from the initial pace does mess with the tempo of the record, but as an individual piece of music, it’s easily one of the more solid features the record comes with. It pairs with other tracks like “Newspaper Pane,” harkening back to the swagger-filled Elvis Costello of the late 70’s.
Completing the two juxtaposing energies is then, all of the slower, melodic, folk or ballad-like songs; the first of which comes instantly after “No Flag.” “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now,” is an intimate, personal reflection wrapped in slow-paced acoustic guitar, and various horns. Much like “No Flag,” it stands as one of the record’s highlights, this time putting a heavy focus on Costello’s undying ability to craft flawless, emotive lyrics. Another one of these deep-cutting, contemplating songs comes later on, with “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”, where he recognizes his own private facades. It questions if he’s truly brave and free, or if those are just images he’s presenting despite the reality of his broken heart. Both instances are worthwhile listens.
While a large majority of the songs are easily broken into these two sections, certain individual experiments fall outside of these two categories; most notably, “Hetty O’Hara Confidential,” and “Radio Is Everything;” both of which are incredibly memorable. The first of these two songs follows many patterns relevant to hip-hop, including a beat that sounds like it may be beatboxed. It explores drug use often-times through wacky, eccentric lyrics like “a morphine tattoo on an unquenchable thirst,” reminiscent of other hip-hop and rock fusers, like 90’s Beck. Strangely, the combination works quite well, and despite his age, Costello presents everything with enough youth and energy to stay fun. “Radio Is Everything” is then, quite the opposite. Its instrumental is easily the most ambient on the album, and its entire focus is Costello’s delivery of dark, foreboding poetry, whose final conclusion is simply, “Radio Is Everything.” In many ways, it’s the most effective song on the record, proving that sometimes, if lyricism is what you’re good at, it’s really all you need.
With each landed punch, however, come a few missed ones. Many of the more drawn-back cuts don’t do Elvis Costello justice, as they pull back the curtain a little too far, and rely too much on his less-polished vocal performances. Even in times of lyrical genius, songs like “I Do (Zula’s Song),” and “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip,” sound like jazz lounge recordings; and as much as he’s a proven, skilled musician, Costello lacks the chops necessary to pull off the now-played-out aesthetic of raw and romantic jazz. If this were 1980, and he were alongside other pop giants attempting this, like Billy Joel, maybe it would feel more welcome, but in 2020, and with a voice not quite that legendary, it gets dull really quickly. Sadly, the record ends on one of these worse-off notes, on “Byline.”
A record this stylistically inconsistent can still prove cohesive through either production tricks and transitions, or presenting it as a collection of singles, much like the Gorillaz’ latest record. Hey Clockface doesn’t utilize either of these tools, and instead, jumps from mood to mood, and instrumental to instrumental whenever it feels like; in many cases, without even a thematic relation between the two songs. Thus, it listens like someone found fourteen separate songs, and threw them together, which is really where the landmark weakness is found. Though it features quality, diverse tracks throughout, the lack of a consistent glue dooms it to fall apart easily.