At this point in time, what more needs to be said about Elvis Costello? As one of the leading voices in alternative music from his beginnings in the late ‘70s, he rose to prominence on the strength of three home-run albums in a row with “My Aim is True,” “This Year’s Model” and “Armed Forces.” These established Costello as an incisive, emotionally charged and passionate singer-songwriter willing to blaze his own trail through popular culture. Not afraid to speak his mind or get in trouble for it, he was famously banned from “Saturday Night Live” for stopping a musical performance a few seconds in to switch to a song that the network had specifically banned, namely “Radio, Radio.” And now, some 40 years later, Costello is still going strong and has released a new album, “Hey Clockface,” on Oct. 30, with Concord Records, displaying the same lyrical talent as he’s always possessed and showing that his voice refuses to be hampered by something so inconsequential as the passage of time.
Costello has consistently been one of those artists who has done whatever he’s wanted, trends be damned. It’s what put him on the map and propelled him to the forefront of the New Wave movement that dominated alternative music from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, in those heady days between the Ramones and Duran Duran. If that meant he was going to write songs about watching police procedurals in “Watching the Detectives” or about seraphs granting him immortality in “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” then that was what he was going to do. And now, if he wants to put a hip-hop drumbeat underneath a song like “Newspaper Pane,” then more power to him. And if he wants to slowly croon to a brass section, piano and cello in “I Do (Zula’s Song),” then I’m all for it.
It’s pretty remarkable that Costello’s voice has not noticeably deteriorated over the years. He still sounds as fresh and nasally as he did years ago, if just ever so slightly more mature in how his voice wraps around the lyrics. The music has a noticeably rougher edge to it this time around. You could never exactly call Elvis Costello refined in the traditional sense, but “Hey Clockface” is more granular and sandier than what many fans will associate with him. But there is plenty to recommend to hardcore fans here. The melodies are excellent, and the accompaniment is solid and varied throughout. It is weird in exactly the right way — the way that makes Costello endearing in the first place.
It can be easy to forget about Elvis Costello, if only because the man seems so averse to traditional celebrity. He rarely appears on television, and tends to show up in the most unlikely of places, like a surprise appearance with the Beastie Boys on “Saturday Night Live” once his previous ban from the program was rescinded. But the man keeps reminding us why he mattered and why he still matters to the world of music. “Hey Clockface” is certainly a worthy addition to his discography, and fans are sure to pleased and even newcomers might have something to appreciate thanks to the thoroughly modern production values. It showcases everything good about Elvis Costello and why his aim remains true. I give “Hey Clockface” 4/5 stars.