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Elvis Costello's 'Hey Clockface' Strikes The Perfect Balance


ELVIS COSTELLO: (Vocalizing).


Elvis Costello, he's always up to something - twirling a giant spinning wheel to pick the next song during a show, adapting music for the stage, creating an installation like "50 Songs For 50 Days." That last one started in September as a daily rollout of songs written over the last 50 years. And he's got a new album. It's called "Hey Clockface."


COSTELLO: (Singing) Hey, Clockface. Keep your fingers on the dial. You stole those precious moments and the kisses from her smile. And now I'm living in these hours. Away we will while. I'm not wasting any more time.

SIMON: Elvis Costello joins us now from Vancouver. Thanks so much for being with us.

COSTELLO: My pleasure. My pleasure.

SIMON: Let's - if we could start with "50 Songs For 50 Days" on Twitter and Spotify. You include songs "Withered And Died," "Everybody's Crying Mercy," "Waiting For The End Of The World."


COSTELLO: (Singing) Waiting for the end of the world. Dear Lord, I sincerely hope you're coming 'cause you really started something.

SIMON: The list will conclude on Tuesday. I'm told - in the news business, we, you know, keep up on these things - that Tuesday is Election Day. Is this sheer coincidence?

COSTELLO: Absolutely. It never occurred to me. I never looked at the calendar. You know, I just wrote an album called "Hey Clockface." I mean, my sense of time is - I'm constantly at war with the clock. It's always pulling tricks on me.

No, I said in the note when I set this installation, as I called it and you referred to it, as something to console or to amuse or irritate. It's - I'm not telling people what to think or how they should align their allegiance. But I think if you listen to these songs, it's an emotional experience for me to consider some of the mistakes, some of the cruelties that you're inevitably going to write songs about if you've got your eyes open and your heart in the matter.

And I just feel that the job of a singer is not to sort of sit within their golden palace and pontificate. There are people who live in golden palaces in our world today, but this particular musician is not one of them. I'm writing from where I'm standing. You take out of it whatever you want.

SIMON: Let me ask about "Hey Clockface." I'm not proud of this fact, but I spent about, well, over five minutes trying to find out if it's a euphemism for something. Near as I can tell, it actually means the face of a clock.

COSTELLO: No, that's just your filthy mind, I think. Some people have pointed out that it is - this could be a scandalous title if there's just a simple typo, but it's a great way of animating time, which is - both can be your romantic rival - when your sweetheart, your loved one, whoever they may be, is on their way to you, time moves, you know, painfully slowly. And when it's time to be apart, it always speeds up. So that's the simple idea of the song. It's not a great, profound statement about time or some ominous song about mortality.


SIMON: Let me ask you about the song - another song. Let's listen to it for a moment - "No Flag."


COSTELLO: (Singing) 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. 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.

SIMON: Is this the proud credo of a skeptic?

COSTELLO: I think it's the song of the day when you get up and no allegiance, no theology, no philosophy can console you. It's someplace that I've got to more frequently than feels comfortable. I wrote the song last year, and it came out this summer, and people immediately saw some sort of parallel that I never intended. But if it is a consolation to hear this sentiment aired, albeit a rather desperate one, it isn't the place that I dwell all the time.

There's another song recorded in the same session called "We Are All Cowards Now" that, you know, and I consciously gave that song that title rather than the more pointed, accusative title "You're All Cowards Now" because that isn't the way I feel. I see my own impulse to rage and be unreasoned about things that distress me and seem an affront is a day-to-day battle. But we won't ever build anything that I want to see happen for my children and your children or grandchildren or whoever they be if we simply dig ourselves into deeper and deeper trenches, you know, either side of a no man's land or no woman's land, you know?


COSTELLO: (Singing) The emptiness of arms, the openness of thighs, the pornography of bullets the promises and prizes can't disguise. We are all cowards now.

SIMON: Totally personal question - you, of course, are married to one of the great jazz singers of all time...


SIMON: ...Diana Krall. Do you sing to each other in the kitchen?

COSTELLO: Constantly. No, we, of course - that's been one of the most wonderful things about this summer, which I will never forget, is that I will hear music drifting from another room. It's a lot when both mom and dad are working at home. Our boys are in other rooms either doing their homework or playing their games. They're playing their own music. I'm on the back porch making a record. Mom's up in the music room, playing the piano.

SIMON: Does - do people who make music have a special purpose now, do you think?

COSTELLO: I think it would be tremendously arrogant to imagine you did. There is this familiar trope that self-interested politicians and commentators, you know, who pontificate and self-perpetuate their lies, throw at artists - generally music artists, cinematic artists, painters, writers - that we somehow are abusing a privileged soapbox that we've been handed by the audience. You know, you even get members of the audience who say, keep out of politics. I'm not in politics. You won't find a manifesto in any of my songs, but you will find a point of view. So I'll say what I damn well please, and you don't have to listen.

You know, all these things about, I'm being oppressed by some sort of babble of social media, goes away if you simply switch it off. You know, the great John Prine wrote a song at the very beginning of his career that proposed, blow up your TV, throw away the paper, and just have your own heart to guide you about what's right and wrong about any of this. You could do worse than that right now.

SIMON: Elvis Costello's new album, "Hey Clockface" - thank you so much for speaking with us.

COSTELLO: Thank you very much. Good day.


COSTELLO: (Singing) Tell me, how does it feel in the hour of deception and the moment... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.