“Why should anybody listen to me?” Elvis Costello asks on single ‘No Flag’, and for the rest of the album he searches for an answer to that question.
Recorded with seasoned jazz pros in New York, Paris, and by Costello alone in Helsinki, Hey Clockface has a disjointed feel and struggles to find its feet in any one sound. The opening track, ‘Revolution #49’, is a spoken word piece that just tries just a little too hard, whilst also forecasting the rest of the spoken word pieces that follow. If you are a fan of Leonard Cohen but want something a little worse, these are the tracks for you.
After ‘No Flag’, with its throbbing bass, walls of wailing guitar and ‘edgy’ lyrics such as ‘No God for the damn that I don’t give,’ is mercifully over, he begins a three-track croonfest. At this point coherence is out the window, and although Costello’s famed vibrato voice and luscious instrumentation is present on the album, long-time collaborators Steve Nieve, Snarky Puppy member Chris Bullock, and Wilco guitarist Nils Cline, are what save it.
The last of the next three, ‘I Do (Zola’s Song)’ is a magnificent piece that sounds straight out of a noir film. Think Edward Norton’s film Motherless Brooklyn to give a sense of the mood on this.
Costello opts for another self-recorded number to break up what was shaping up to be a half-decent jazz album. There is decent use of sampling from a man of his age and twanging guitars reminiscent of spaghetti westerns, but the weirdly high-pitched backing vocals detract from the result.
The title track sees Costello become Randy Newman – you wouldn’t be surprised to hear it in the next Toy Story (if we ever get one). The lyrical themes of the album have emerged by this point, with a focus on aging, lost loves and forgotten passions being central to most of the tracks. ‘Hetty O’Hara Confidential’ is a decent story of a newspaper columnist whose sharp tongue ends up cutting her strings and burning her bridges along the same lines.
Costello is at his best when he is economic, and those flashes of the lyrical brilliance that were shown on classic albums like This Year’s Model come through best on the songs where he is at his least pretentious. ‘What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?’ – the inspiration for which came from an overheard conversation with Bob Dylan – is a simple song about regrets throughout life, and works to great effect. The final track, ‘Byline’, is perhaps the best on the album, with its simplistic arrangement letting Costello’s vocals and writing shine through.
If you can make it through Costello’s solo projects on the album, get past the hideous cover, and you aren’t looking for vintage Costello, then this album, to answer his question, is worth listening to.