Elvis Costello is pretty much a household name in the realm of alternative rock. Since the late 1970s, Costello hasn’t strayed far from his eccentric style of experimental pop and punk laid over jousting wordplay, but he always finds a way to shake things up and dazzle fans. Hey Clockface, released Oct. 30, is the artist’s 31st record and a solid reminder of his ability to put out a fresh and entirely unique release while sounding unmistakably like himself.
Hey Clockface captures Costello’s affinity for keeping fans on their toes, throwing out strange breakdowns and riffs while navigating various pressing socio-political struggles of today through his lyrical mastery. The album is unpredictable and experimental, and, as with any release that wanders from the beaten path, faces the threat of alienating fans. But the beauty of Costello’s music — to which this album is a testament — is that the one thing fans can expect from him is a smorgasbord of musical indulgences that does quite the opposite of driving them away.
“No Flag” is a gloriously angry return for Costello, the singer belting, “I got no religion, I got no philosophy/ Got a head full of ideas and words that don’t seem to belong to me.” Costello once again taps into the off-kilter punk music he’s known for, but the song is jarringly different with the wall of layered sounds that listeners are engulfed in. The artist challenges the hive mind mentality with a biting voice, wielding frantic riffs as a weapon to shake up the listener further.
Then in a flash, the anger melts away to the gentle strumming of the guitar on “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now.” Costello’s voice shines here, supported by the hollow sound of drums and the barely there synths and wind ensemble. The song masters the “bare-bones” sound technique without sounding too empty.
In a swift transition, Costello jumps back into an upbeat, charged mode with “Newspaper Pane.” The ominous, reverbed guitar interjected in the intro indicates that he means business, capturing the listener’s attention. Yet, despite its commanding nature, “Newspaper Pane” similarly adopts a stripped-down vibe, mimicking something in the alley of Bob Dylan.
“Hetty O’Hara Confidential” is similarly assertive, featuring strong, deafening beats that force you to pay attention. First the rhythm draws you in, and then the lyrics hook you with their snarky storytelling. The overall simplicity of multiple syncopated beats layered on top of one another add to the anxiety and harsh awareness stirred up by the track. The different components of the song seem to toss listeners back and forth, each vying for attention but still in a perfect harmony despite so many theoretically disagreeing elements.
Some of the highlights of Hey Clockface are not in fact the sharp segues to the energetic tracks, but the beautiful, tender variations of the softer songs. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” is haunting and stylish, weaving an avant-garde, noir atmosphere that further showcases Costello’s innate tendency to master uncharted musical territory effortlessly. “I Can’t Say Her Name” is equally gentle, like a retro love song evoking jazzy restaurant music, but in a good way.
Hey Clockface truly grasps the edgy, exploratory name Costello has built for himself over the years. The lilting, wacky, total nonchalance of tracks, qualified only by the moving lyrics stuck between soft piano numbers, is a jarring but effective technique to keep listeners engaged and ready for anything, which is precisely the uncertainty the record delivers. Hey Clockface, in a way, does wind back time to Costello’s past, but only with whispers of his previously released songs blowing across the new ones on the album. In all other aspects, it’s yet another original, distinctive and purely eccentric work on part of Costello.