From the first enchanting notes of ‘Revolution #49,’ I find myself standing alone in a barren landscape, encircled by desert winds. To my left is a serpent (instrument, not snake), behind me the low rumblings of cello and piano, to my right a wailing cor anglais. The tone is dirty, not desolate, rasping yet rich – then there’s Costello’s voice emerging from the sand.
Costello takes the opportunity to offer up gentler moments of vulnerability and fragility – the occasional crack in his falsetto, a vibrato so tender it would make an iron bar weep
The land was white, the wind a dagger / Life beats a poor man to his grave / Love makes a rich man from a beggar / Love is the one thing we can save.
I settle in, committed. I could do two more hours of this. But the mood set by the opening number of Elvis Costello’s latest offering, Hey Clockface, is quickly turned on its head by the second track.
It’s hard to grasp Costello’s intention with this album. A winding journey of genres fourteen songs deep and only slightly too long for vinyl, it hints at an approach catering to a modern audience that listens to single tracks embedded in Spotify playlists, rather than a cohesive body of work for the remaining purists among us to embrace with headphones in the dark. Yet there is so much to embrace.
Recorded in Helsinki, Paris and New York, the album dips in and out of rock, pop and jazz, with Middle Eastern and ragtime flavours, peppered with the occasional poetry and spoken word.
Remarkably, Costello only began the recording process in February. After laying down a few solo tracks at Suomenlinnan Studio in Helsinki, he immediately set sail for Paris to form a quintet at Les Studios Saint Germain. “I sang live on the studio floor,” he says, “directing from the vocal booth. We cut nine songs in two days. We spoke very little. Almost everything the musicians played was a spontaneous response to the song I was singing. I’d had a dream of recording in Paris like this, one day.”
The result is a confluence of strings, woodwinds, a jiving brass section and percussion, at times providing the kind of soundscape one associates with a smoky jazz bar. Mellow saxophones, clarinets and trumpets blend seamlessly with acoustic and tremolo guitar, piano, sparse vocal harmonies and an organ that at times evokes memories of 80s synth pads – there’s even a flugel horn.
That’s not to say it has something for everyone, but with its alternatively relaxed and driving rhythms, boldness and beauty, darkness and light, it has something for every aspect of anyone with an artistic temperament or a halfway sensitive soul. “I wanted the record to be vivid,” he says, “whether the songs demanded playing that was loud and jagged or intimate and beautiful.”
The New York sessions completed the recording before the tracks were sent to Los Angeles to be mixed by Sebastian Krys, who worked with Costello on the GRAMMY® award winning album, Look Now. Krys is certainly a master of his craft. The instruments are nicely spaced around the listener, each timbre present but never encroaching, so that even when a track is heavily layered, it never feels cluttered.
Lyrically, Costello toys with social commentary and self-reflection or, as he calls it, “peace, love and misunderstanding” (You’ll see my photo beside the article / “That’s just some guy I used to know”). With such wide musical range, one of the key elements tying the album together is the poetic nature of the lyrics, not least in the storytelling style of modern folk ballad, ‘Newspaper Pane.’
The beaus with their fiddles played “The Rascal’s Release.”
We toasted to valor and wished there were peace.
Six months later in a newspaper margin,
They were all cut down in a cavalry charge.
Weeping Miss Imogen said to her priest,
I gave him my virtue. It was the least
I could leave him on the eve of departure,
Though I will long for him now and hereafter.
And the child I’ll be raising may have his blue eyes
What if he grows up and dies
On some distant unnameable hillside or field
Because a king and a concubine put a mark on his shield?
At times intimate, at times political – She dragged my face from the eye to my lip on the rough side of the striking strip / To the port side of a sinking ship /… You don’t need to see my face / Radio is everything – the realm where Costello really shines is in the ballads.
With gorgeous melodies and colourful chord changes reminiscent of poignant moments in Broadway musicals, there’s a nostalgic sense that we’ve heard these songs before. The arrangements are simple, allowing the vocal to take centre stage, and Costello takes the opportunity to offer up gentler moments of vulnerability and fragility – the occasional crack in his falsetto, a vibrato so tender it would make an iron bar weep.
‘I Do (Zula’s Song)’ and ‘The Last Confession of Vivian Whip’ fall into this category but the album’s standout track for me is piano ballad, ‘The Whirlwind.’ It’s the kind of song that makes you stop what you’re doing just to experience it. With Costello’s raspy voice, a wailing trumpet and a tinge of regret, it’s an anthem for anyone who’s ever had a dream – a song so moving, I can’t help but wonder why it didn’t earn the album’s title.
A work of examination and reflection, Hey Clockface has the feel of a dusty, discovered journal providing insight into some of the more personal moments of Costello’s life. As for his dream?
When the last of the garlands and laurel crowns and fine bouquets have all been swept away … Where will you find the courage to say, “They’re not laughing at me now?”
Hey Clockface is scheduled for release on October 30th.
Pre-Order your copy here: https://found.ee/ElvisCostello_HeyClockface
Musicians: Elvis Costello, Steve Nieve, Mickaél Gasche, Pierre-François ‘Titi’ Dufour, Ajuq, Renaud-Gabriel Pion, Michael Leonhart, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline.
Engineers: Eetü Seppälä, François Delabrière, Sebastian Krys.
Label: Concord Records.