Music Reviews
Hey Clockface

Elvis Costello Hey Clockface

(Concord Records) Rating - 6/10

Towards the end of his 31st album, Elvis Costello starts to speak directly to his audience. “They say I have the perfect face for radio,” he mutters as jazzy instrumentation warps in the background. It’s a classic witticism from an artist who built his career on being sharp and observational, but Hey Clockface as an album is a whole lot more than just that. Forty years after Get Happy!!, Costello is trying out glitchier, grimier sounds. He spent his previous album, 2018’s Look Now, trying on the uptown pop style he grew up with. But with his latest release, Costello is doing whatever the hell he likes. On the lead single, No Flag, he throws a floating synth, industrial percussion, scuzzed out lead electric guitar, and a cleanly picked indie-rock lick together to create an apprehensive gumbo. “I got no religion, I got no philosophy,” he intones at the beginning. Despite his history proving that his opening statement isn’t true, Costello sounds defeated enough that the song’s apathy rings true.

The majority of Hey Clockface is spent exemplifying the project’s artwork and awkward title. An offbeat album cover is just the tip of the iceberg. The thudding, pots-and-pans drumwork of They’re Not Laughing at Me Now underlines the bitterness of Costello’s lyrics, but by the song’s ending, the orchestrations feel downright anthemic. It’s a weird combination, but the slow and uncomfortable build to the climax works. With We Are All Cowards Now, he sings about how paranoia has taken hold in almost any climate. “They’re sending out their sons to take away our guns and daughters” is a hilarious line in any context, but the ominousness of the instrumentation only sells this depiction of a liberal fantasy from a right-wing perspective.

For most of this album, Costello switches between percussive anxiety and odd ditties with ease. With the title track and I Can’t Say Her Name, he invokes a cross between vaudeville and Randy Newman. Hetty O’Hara Confidential is mostly nonsensical but the instrumentation recalls Gorillaz at their weirdest, while Newspaper Pane relies on booming bass presence and In Rainbows-era Radiohead drum programming. For the rest of the album, Costello plays average piano ballads, sometimes with appropriately dramatic backing. On the mediocre I Do (Zulu’s Song), the touches of brass and piano thump slowly without much excitement. The Whirlwind and The Last Confession of Vivian Whip are both lived-in and detailed, but what makes both of them work is the warmth of Costello’s vocals. If he wants to make mediocre piano ballads and weird faux-Gorillaz songs, who cares, he’s Elvis Costello. At this point in his career, we’re lucky to just have him. As a wise man once wisely said, “Elvis is king.” He was referring to Costello, not Presley, though.