Punch The Clock
Columbia Records, 1983
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/09/1997
With all the media attention surrounding the death of Princess Diana, my memories turned to a video I saw many years ago from Elvis Costello. The video was for "Everyday I Write The Book," and featured two actors who looked like Prince Charles and Princess Diana. That album, 1983's Punch The Clock, was also the first time I ever consciously heard Costello's music, courtesy of HBO's "Video Jukebox" and the song "Let Them All Talk."
Digging it out of the now-famous Pierce Memorial Archives (man, I really should clean more often down in the "Village People" section), I was surprised at two things. First, the angry young Brit from just a few years ago had been replaced by - well, a wimp. Second, the words to "Everyday I Write The Book" were anything but happy - which proved to be quite accurate for the then-newly married Royal Couple. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.
In the few short years since My Aim Is True was released in the States, Costello had not only tightened up his sound, but also added his legendary backup band The Attractions. And while the maturity of the songwriting occasionally showed the signs of brilliance his debut did, there are few moments like that on Punch The Clock. Take, for example, "Let Them All Talk"- for some reason, I thought there was more frenzy in the drums in the chorus. Shows what 14 year-old memories will do to your perception. With the "correct" drum pattern, something is lost - possibly a touch of the fury.
In fact, many of the songs seem to have lost their pissed-off edge, though there is an occasional sign of despair. Songs like "Pills And Soap," "Love Went Mad" and "The Element Within Her" all speak of young love gone awry, but they lack a real emotional oomph - indeed, the kick in the ass that Costello had given the fading British pop scene in 1977.
But there are three moments on Punch The Clock that tend to restore my faith in Costello. "Shipbuilding" is a beautiful piece which shows what kind of power Costello can have when he sets his own pace; it's a ballad that isn't a love song - and that's why it works. The closing track, "The World And His Wife," is a salute to the power of Costello's "old school" of songwriting, and is a welcome addition.
Ah, and then there is "Everyday I Write The Book." I know that I've derided Costello for becoming a "wimp" in this review, and this song is somewhat light-weight in the grand scheme of Costello's catalog. Be that as it may, I can't halp liking the damn song. Another falling-out-of-love song, this one looks at the weaknesses of both parties in the relationship - the beloved female (who returns to old ways of behaving) and our hero, who lets his true love see the real "him" through an extended relationship, possibly without marriage.
And in retrospect, the song's video with the images of Charles and Diana seems a bit spooky these days, just because it was pretty accurate. I know that everyone is probably tiring of the media feeding frenzy that has occurred since the evening hours of August 30 (at least in America), so I will stop my commentary there and allow you to discover the eerie similarities yourself. (I don't know if the video is available on a home video compilation.)
So what's my problem with Punch The Clock? I guess it's just that I expect any Elvis Costello album to contain a healthy dose of anger. It was there on Brutal Youth, which I admit I have not heard in its entirety. (To be frank, I admit a healthy dose of ignorance regarding most of Costello's catalog - so I'll be learning along with you, the reader.)
Another weakness I found is that most of the songwriting tends to sound like "throwaway" works. You can listen to it a dozen times in a row, but more often than not, you'll forget what you listened to really quick. A good album should stick in your craw and keep a tune running in your head.
If you're a diehard Costello fan, I guess it wouldn't hurt to add Punch The Clock to your collection - that is, if you haven't already done so. For the rest of civilization, stick with the greatest-hits collections.