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Time is on Elvis Costello’s side with ‘Hey Clockface’

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 5, 2020

When Elvis Costello made his one and only local appearance at the Big Easy, which is now the Knitting Factory, in 2005, it appeared that the celebrated singer-songwriter was content and about to enter the back end of an incomparable career.

Costello was busy with a few distractions during that period. He and his band the Attractions entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. He married fellow singer-songwriter Diana Krall that same year.

Rhino Records completed a reissue of Costello’s classic albums from the 1970s through the ‘90s in 2005. The vocalist-guitarist, who had crossed the half-century mark in 2004, was settling down with his celebrated wife, who gave birth to twin sons in 2006. The man formerly known as Declan MacManus also appeared on an episode of “Frasier” during that era.

Costello, 66, seemed to be settling into a comfortable position as an entertainment icon who was so different from the angry young man who stunned fans as the leading light of the British New Wave scene during the 1970s.

After releasing several exceptional albums, such as 1978’s “This Year’s Model,” 1989’s “Spike” and 1996’s “All This Useless Beauty,” Costello could have surfed the sonic nostalgia wave. The charmer with the familiar baritone, however, failed to rest on his considerable laurels.

The larger-than-life Brit, who impressed on TV programs including “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” has been one of rock’s most consistent songwriters, and he continues to hit the ball out of the park. He impressed with 2018’s “Look Now,” and he’s back with “Hey Clockface,” which dropped on Oct. 30.

Costello’s most recent project is a freewheeling, quirky project that is full of surprises. Even though Costello is a senior citizen, he is as restless as he was during his salad days and as productive as his long-of-tooth peers Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.

“Hey Clockface” is filled with ironic, sophisticated tunes such as the gorgeous torch song “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip”; the amusing spoken word of the jazzy “Radio Is Everything,” which is a far cry from the old hit “Radio, Radio”; and the catchy but deep “Newspaper Pane.”

“Not a fashionable kindness / It was grotesque,” which is from “Newspaper Pane,” is one of Costello’s best couplets in years. The dark and clever track would fit perfectly on 1986’s “Blood and Chocolate,” when Costello was at the height of his powers.

But unlike many recording artists who have been recording for a staggering six decades, Costello has never fallen off an artistic cliff. The Grammy Award winner has been remarkably consistent in the studio and has always been entertaining live.

After catching Fiona Apple deliver a duet with Costello on a 2006 VH1 special recorded in Atlantic City, the diminutive singer-songwriter gushed at the after-party: “There’s no one like Elvis. He’s so great live, and it was an honor to share the stage with him.”

It was a special evening when Costello delivered a 28-song set at the Big Easy. Costello rendered several old favorites, such as “No Action,” “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” and “Accidents Will Happen.” “Alison” included a snippet of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”

Costello floored the capacity crowd, which included 4000 Holes’ Bob Gallagher. The owner of the longtime Spokane record shop raved about Costello when reminiscing about the show.

“We saw Elvis in a bar,” Gallagher said. “How cool is that? I remember watching the show from the balcony, and it was just a wonderful night. You can’t help but get a little overwhelmed seeing Elvis Costello. He’s one of those guys who works hard.

“He’s prolific and has tons of imagination. He has a gift that not everyone gets. It was a great show, and now we have his new album, which people want. We can’t see him like we saw him that night, but we can listen to his new album.”

“Hey Clockface” is certainly a reference that time is ticking for Costello. There’s little doubt that Costello is aware that he’s an elder statesman, but he remains as adventurous as ever. Expect the prolific bard to continue crafting challenging work.

There’s not a single recording artist who is comparable to Costello, who arrived as a snarling, mean-spirited rocker. The son of a British bandleader has morphed. Costello has calmed down over the years and dabbled in jazz and R&B and whatever tickles his fancy.

Who knows what Costello, who combined the first name of Elvis Presley and his mother’s maiden name, will do next? Considering that Costello is off the road, it wouldn’t be surprising for another album to land in 2021.

Longtime pal and producer T-Bone Burnett appreciates Costello’s work ethic. “He puts in a lot of time and effort into his craft and as a result has made some amazing records,” Burnett said during a 2015 chat. “He’s unique, and he’s just an amazing guy.”

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