By Samuel Orazem EBS Contributor
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Whoever said that rock ‘n’ roll was a young man’s game might have a bone to pick with Elvis Costello. The 66-year-old, British musician has been releasing music since the 1970’s and his latest work, titled Hey Clockface, is his thirty-first studio album. Over the past four decades, Costello has put out studio-length albums on a nearly perennial basis and, for the most part, they have been well-received. His work has consistently demonstrated that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks and this latest effort continues to establish him as a sort of living record of rock’s trends, tangents and evolutions.
Hey Clockface opens with “Revolution #49” and it is immediately clear that Costello’s daily rotation is comprised of more than songs from the anglophone West. The track is written in a harmonic minor key, a signature usually associated with Middle Eastern music, and the opening melody is played through a reed instrument backed by plucked lutes and foreign-sounding percussion. Costello’s voice provides a poetic narration about love over the exotic instrumental as he incorporates synths and more traditional Western instruments into the background. “Revolution #49” is an atypical introductory track for a rock album and in that way, it foreshadows the remainder of the album. The record does not heavily rely on Middle Eastern tropes, but every track is somehow unexpected.
The second track, “No Flag,” is the lone, truly high-energy track on Hey Clockface. Costello’s ever-increasingly gritty voice is matched with blown-out electric guitars and nostalgic kick and snare drum pattern. It feels like a satisfactory, albeit slightly contrived moment for Costello to prove that he will not let his age limit his music. His aging voice has a similar timbre to that of The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas. It sounds like there is a distortion module somewhere in the vocal chain despite there clearly being minimal processing.
The remainder of the album haphazardly jumps between sonic aesthetics and demonstrates Costello’s incredible range. The Strokes’ influence reappears on “Newspaper Pane” where he fuses muted vocals with jazzy saxophones and trumpets. Jazz scatting provides the intro for the title track, “Hey Clockface/ How Can You Face Me?” where Costello sounds like he’s serenading a small crowd in a dingy, underground speakeasy. That jazz influence permeates throughout the album and makes many of the more impersonal tracks feel as homey as the Christmas carol sounding “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip.” Meanwhile, on “Hetty O’Hara Confidential,” Costello keeps up with the times with funky, synthy rock that sounds like it belongs on the title credits for an 80’s movie.
If that overview makes you think Hey Clockface is a disjointed mess, you are technically correct—objectively, it is a nonsensical compilation of sonic threads that should not work as an album. However, hearing a 66-year-old explore the limits of his artistic capabilities with such youthful exuberance and disregard for the rules is a truly intoxicating experience.