By Eleni P. Austin
I’ve got no religion, I’ve got no philosophy, I’ve got a head full of ideas and words that don’t seem to belong to me… I’ve got no illusions, I’ve had no epiphany, why should anyone listen to me?”
That’s Elvis Costello kicking against the pricks on “No Flag,” a song off his newest record, Hey Clockface. Anyone who knows me, knows that Elvis is my all-time favorite musician . His first album came out in 1977, and I heard a few intriguing songs on KMET and KLOS radio, but it wasn’t until 1980, that I actually owned some of his music.
That year I had a “PUNK” party on my 17th birthday (that’s a whole other column), and a friend gave me a “Regatta de Blanc” tape from the Police. Problem was, I already had, and loved that one. So, I took it back to Gemco (ahh, Gemco) to exchange it. Luckily, they had Elvis’ latest, his fourth album, “Get Happy,” so I took the plunge.
I became obsessed, much to my mother’s dismay (she didn’t like his voice). I listened to Get Happy before and after school. I parsed the lyrics and marveled at the melodies. It was sort of Punk, but so much more. That summer I cycled through six other albums, the B-52’s debut, London Calling from the Clash, the Beatles’ Red and Blue singles collections plus Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall. But first in rotation was Elvis.
As the year wore on, I back-tracked and got his Armed Forces album, then the new-ish Taking Liberties, as well as his debut, My Aim Is True. The following January I saw him live for the first time when he toured around the release of his sixth effort, Trust. His next record was a sharp right turn. Almost Blue was an album of Country standards recorded in Nashville. At that point in my life I had no interest in Country music, I found it kind of corny and old-fashioned. But because it had Elvis’ stamp of approval, I began to open my mind.
In the ensuing years, Elvis provided that service again and again for me, acting as a musical ambassador, introducing me to artists like N.R.B.Q., Gram Parsons and Dusty Springfield. Elvis covered songs by Bob Dylan, John Hiatt and Richard Thompson, and I’d take a deep dive into their catalogues. It didn’t always work, I still don’t get Randy Newman, but E.C.’s love of Abba made me re-evaluate what I had previously considered to be AM Pop radio fluff. Yes, I actually like “Waterloo.”
Elvis was born Declan McManus in 1954, in Paddington, London, the son of Lillian and Ross McManus. His parents met through their affinity for music. She ran Jazz clubs and worked in record shops, he was a Jazz trumpeter and later gained fame as a vocalist for The Joe Loss Orchestra. As a kid, Declan was exposed to myriad musical styles and retained a love for Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, even as he was discovering the Beatles, the Stones, and later Bob Dylan, the Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Pub Rock.
By 1970, he began performing, first as a solo artist and then in the band Flip City. He had also started writing his own songs. Fast forward seven years and Declan was married with a young son, working as a computer-programmer for Elizabeth Arden. By then his manager had rechristened him Elvis Costello (several months before the King Of Rock & Roll met his ignominious end). But more importantly, he had amassed an impressive stockpile of original songs.
Using up his sick days at work, he went into Pathways studio with producer Nick Lowe and a backing band from San Francisco called Clover (they later evolved into Huey Lewis’ band, the News). The result was his stunning debut, My Aim Is True.
An instant classic, the record matched angular melodies to vitriolic lyrics. Along with bands like The Clash, The Jam, The Damned and The Sex Pistols, Elvis helped usher in the Punk era. Although he was part of the Class Of ’77, his music was never really defined by that narrow paradigm. Once he connected with Bruce Thomas, Pete Thomas (no relation) and Steve Nieve, on bass, drums and keys, respectively, they became his backing band The Attractions.
Elvis’ second and third albums, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces exceeded expectations. Released in 1978 and 1979, the former married the snarl of Punk with concise songcraft that echoed the Rolling Stones’ mid ‘60s output. The latter took inspiration from Abba (!) as well as the more Pop-tastic sounds of New Wave. This triptych is considered Elvis’ classic “Angry Young Man” period. Some fans were content to stop there, but really, the best was yet to come.
Although New Wave was the musical lingua franca of the 1980s, Elvis, to quote Linda Ronstadt quoting Mike Nesmith, traveled to the beat of a different drum. Get Happy channeled the hard-charging R&B of Stax and Motown. Almost Blue was a Country-Western effort recorded in Nashville.
In 1982, he delivered Imperial Bedroom, a dazzling collection of songs that owed as much to Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra as it did to the Beatles. A year later, he followed up with Punch The Clock, a sleek Pop record that featured back-up singers and a horn section.
It seemed as though his appetite for musical exploration knew no bounds. 1986’s King Of America, produced by new pal T-Bone Burnett, was a deep dive into Country and Folk. Three years later, Spike featured contributions from The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Chieftans Chrissie Hynde and Allen Toussaint. His first ‘90s effort, Mighty Like A Rose leaned closer to the ornate Pop flavors of ‘60s bands like The Left Banke, Love and The Zombies.
In 1993 he connected with a String section, the Brodsky Quartet. Together they wrote The Juliet Letters, a song cycle based on the imaginary letters of Juliet Capulet. A year later he reunited with the Attractions (after an eight-year hiatus), for the caustic Brutal Youth album and the more opulent All This Useless Beauty.
Throughout the years Elvis produced albums for The Specials, Squeeze, The Pogues and classical vocalist Anne Sofie Von Otter. There were also acclaimed collaborations with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Shortly before he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, he returned to his Punk roots with his new backing band, The Imposters (basically still Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and new bassist Davey Farragher) and released the blistering When I Was Cruel. Naturally, his next effort North, was a collection of jazzy Torch songs. After two divorces, Elvis finally met his match in Jazz chanteuse Diana Krall. The pair married in late 2003 and welcomed twin sons, Dexter and Frank three years later.
As the 21st century progressed, Elvis and The Imposters retreated to Mississippi to record the Countrified Delivery Man. He also created a Classical orchestral work, Il Sogno. Hurricane Katrina motivated him to collaborate again with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint to record The River In Reverse. Then he whipped up the Rock & Roll raver Momofuku in a matter of days in Los Angeles.
Reuniting with his best mate, T-Bone, they made a Bluegrass effort, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane in 2009 and the more Folk-flavored National Ransom the following year. 2013 found Elvis at his most experimental when he hooked up with celebrated Hip-Hop collective The Roots. Not only did Wise Up Ghost include new songs, but it also deconstructed and recalibrated a few songs from Elvis’ extensive back catalogue. The unlikely collaboration actually made it to #16 on the charts.
In the ensuing years, Elvis has continued to tour at a furious clip. 2015 saw the release of his autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. A serious health scare in 2018 truncated a summer tour, but he still released his 30th album, the brilliantly Baroque Look Now. It featured the Imposters and included collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Carole King. Earlier this year, it won the Grammy Award for “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.” In between touring and recording commitments, he has been working on a Broadway musical based on Budd Schulberg novel, A Face In The Crowd, which was also a powerful Elia Kazan film.
Elvis has always excelled in confounding expectations. But his die-hard fans have stuck with him nearly every step of the way. Now he is back with his 31st album, Hey Clockface. Executing a stylistic 180, the new record sounds nothing like his last effort. Toward the end of his last tour and before the Covid pandemic really hit, he holed up alone in Helsinki, sans Imposters, and later with Steve Nieve in Paris and New York, accompanied by a Jazzy combo of Parisians dubbed Le Quintette St. Germain.
The album’s first four cuts hopscotch through a series of moods and musical idioms. “Revolution #49” opens tentatively, like an orchestra warming up. Lowing serpent notes (a brass/woodwind instrument somewhere between a cornett and a tuba) are buttressed by cor anglis oboe, Lowrey organ, cello, melodica and a soupcon of drums. The modal melody swirls around Elvis’ spoken soliloquy, as he intones; “Life beats a poor man to his grave, love makes a rich man from a beggar, love is the one thing we can save.”
The aforementioned “No Flag,” which is also the record’s first single, is essentially a one-man effort, as Elvis handles all the instrumentation. Stinging guitars, whooshy keys and tensile bass lines are tethered to a clanky, industrial crunch. Elvis’ vocals are suitably sinister and snarly as he unleashes a cynical rant that mirrors these divisive days; “You may be joking but I don’t get the gag, I sense no future but time seems to drag/No time for this kind of love, no flag waving high above, no sign for the dark place that I live, no God for the damn that I don’t give.”
The musical sturm und drang of “…Flag” is replaced by plangent guitars, towering grand piano, shivery Fender Rhodes, peppery Flugel horn, mellifluous tenor sax, graceful cello and percussive drums on “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now.” Settling a few scores Elvis hurls loquacious bon mots like “You could shake my hand, if I could unfold my fist, if I were a gentleman, if I were a Christian/But I wouldn’t risk it, why would you? You know my name now, and it’s ‘Mister’ to you,” with deadly accuracy. The melody, which is an amalgam of spiky Folk and jagged Jazz, aligns perfectly with the effortless eloquence of the lyrics.
Meanwhile, “Newspaper Pane” is awash in sprightly Farfisa and Vox colors, percolating bass lines brittle baritone guitar, as Stratocaster blasts atop a tick-tock beat. The language is vivid and the narrative dense as Elvis paints a portrait of a woman trapped by circumstance; “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 unnamable hillside or field, because a king and a concubine put a mark on his shield’.” Horns pulsate and twitch on the bridge, giving this sad-sack saga a caffeinated kick.
The record swings mightily on the title track, (which Elvis co-credits to Jazz giants Andy Razaf and Fats Waller), as well as “I Can’t Say Her Name.” The former is Elvis at his most exuberant, as he impatiently urges time to move forward. The melody and instrumentation a heady brew of Ragtime and English Music Hall flavors. The latter opens with plaintive acoustic guitar and Elvis’ tender croon before launching into a jaunty, Gypsy Jazz refrain powered by trumpet, all manner of clarinet, piano, Lowery organ, cello and a swellegant backbeat.
Several ballads dot the record as well. “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip” pairs painterly piano chords with willowy cello, shadowy trumpet, searing bass clarinet and beatific cor anglais. Elvis’ manner is both ominous and seductive as he unspools the story of Vivian Whip, again the wordplay is labyrinthine; “Just when I needed it, when I couldn’t conceive that it’s so hard to lose your nerve, to just get what you need and not what you deserve.”
“What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have” is a litany of regret wrapped in jangly acoustic guitar, swooping cello, mad scientist organ, slippery Flugel horn and sidling bass flute. Contrition and complacency coalesce on couplets like “What is it that I lost that I don’t really need, some glasses for my eyes, an hour or two of speed/My hands don’t blister, my hands don’t bleed, but I’ll never be contented, repent or even lamented, ‘Til I’m planted down like rotten crops and covered up with weeds.”
Elvis has been previewing “Face In The Crowd” songs for concert audiences for the last couple years. “The Whirlwind” is the latest. A delicate post-mortem that blends wistful piano, melancholy Flugel horn, wily bass clarinet and swoony cello. You don’t need to know the story of Lonesome Rhodes, to appreciate lyrics like “I’ve had my moments, but all too few, you think you know me, maybe you do/You will turn to see me go, nothing’s lost and no one’s won, it’s all over now and now it’s done.”
For my money, the best tracks here are “No Flag” and the other two solo songs from his Helsinki sessions, “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” and “We Are All Cowards Now.” On “Hetty…” EC is a bit of a human beatbox, matching his noises to junky Rhythm Ace, carnivalesque Hammond organ, stately upright piano and his trusty Fender Jazzmaster. Tart lyrics conjure up a fictional counterpoint to 20th century gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. “Hetty” is nearly made obsolete by social media and the cancel culture; “Her reputation curled like yellow smoke, she named the wrong man in the story she broke/She had an unfortunate character flaw, the irresistible impulse to assassinate, but the damage it did was quite substantial to Hetty O’ Hara Confidential.” Elvis’ noirish vocal delivery echoes the terse reportage of a bygone era.
With “…Cowards…” Elvis stacks his own dissonant harmonies over a blend of wah-wah guitars, skittery bass, brittle keys and a stompy beat. The melody, a soulful slice of syncopated angst, the lyrics, a scathing take on the paranoia that fuels every assertion that all liberals are eager to repeal the Second Amendment; “They’re coming for our Peacemakers, our Winchesters and Colts, the rattle of our Gatling Guns, our best cowboy revolts and threats and insults, we are all cowards now/The emptiness of arms, the openness of thighs, the pornography of bullets, the promise and prizes can’t disguise we’re all cowards now.”
Other interesting tracks include the mournful, moody magnificence of “I Do (Zula)” and “Radio Is Everything,” which is another spoken-word entry. The record closes with the elegant epistle of “Byline.” Elvis deftly caresses each sharply turned phrase as nimble Flugel horn notes thread through burnished piano, sly bass clarinet, warm cello notes and barely-there drums. The lyrics offer a rueful dissection of a failed romance; “I read by line by line by line, that old sarcastic Valentine, that you’d denied you sent to me, then took it back/It’s a though that we shared, a careless phrase, a curse or a joke, so words of praise, but I didn’t write, did you wonder why? It was the easiest way to say ‘goodbye’.”
Hey Clockface is not made for casual listening. It’s best consumed through headphones, where complex melodies and knotty, erudite lyrics slowly reveal their hidden charms. The first time through it didn’t connect completely for me, but then I had the same reaction to When I Was Cruel and National Ransom, which became two of my favorites. Anyone still waiting for Armed Forces 2: Electric Boogaloo has missed the point. On the song “Newspaper Pane,” Elvis spells it out for us; “I don’t spend my time perfecting the past, I live for the future, because I know it won’t last.”