From “Almost Blue” to “North” to “Wise Up Ghost” (to name but a few examples), a restless eclecticism has been one of the hallmarks of Elvis Costello’s career. His new album, “Hey Clockface,” distills that chameleonic proclivity into a single outing. Its eclecticism is rooted in the way in which its songs came to be. Costello recorded three of the album’s tracks, working alone, in Helsinki last February. He then headed to Paris, where he recorded nine songs a few days later with an ensemble, led by stalwart collaborator Steve Nieve, that Costello dubbed “le Quintette Saint Germain.” Then the pandemic intervened. The music for the two remaining tracks on “Hey Clockface” was recorded in New York by Michael Leonhart, with contributions from Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and others; Costello added lyrics to complete them from an undisclosed location “via the miracle of telecommunications,” as the press release for the album puts it.
Each of those sessions turns out to have a distinct sonic character. The Helsinki tracks have an urgent, constructed intensity about them. “No Flag,” which offers a statement of principles (or rather, a statement of no principles — “I’ve got no religion, I’ve got no philosophy,” Costello barks), brings to mind early, rocking Elvis (C., not P.); “Hetty O’Hara Confidential,” the story of a gossip columnist’s reign and fall, has a jagged, angular syncopation.
In contrast, the Paris songs, which make up the bulk of the record, have an organic immediacy that encompasses both the jazzy (the buoyant whimsy of the title track, complete with a coda copped from Fats Waller; the noir-ish, trumpet- and clarinet-led vibe of “I Do [Zula’s Song]”), and the poppy (the chanson-like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”; the classic vocal pop of “The Whirlwind”).
The two collaborative songs offer yet another change-up; “Newspaper Pane,” which moves from chronicling an unfortunate shut-in to range across centuries, has an epic sound that culminates in Leonhart’s sweeping, orchestral soul passages, and “Radio Is Everything” is a recitation that reads like a late-night confession with accompanying soundtrack.
Throughout, there seems to be something afoot that Costello variously hints at: a preoccupation with matters of communication (particularly the various public forms it assumes via the media) that surfaces both in the record itself and the preceding publicity for it, in songs such as “Newspaper Pane,” “Byline,” “Radio Is Everything,” and “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” and in the PR “bulletins” that announced the five song previews released over the summer.
Be that preoccupation as it may, other Costello constants besides sonic variation are here in abundance as well: his way with words and with wordplay (here are a couple of gems: “No forgiveness in your heart, you turned your coat and asked me to turn my cheek ”; “No God for the damn that I don’t give”), his abiding tendency for the scathing and the heart-on-sleeve, and the lyrical engagement he solicits by giving the listener enough to surmise, but rarely enough to know. “Hey Clockface” represents them all to generally marvelous effect.