Hey Clockface arrived quickly on the heels of Look Now, but where that 2018 album seemed constructed as classicist Elvis Costello, drawing upon his strengths as a melodicist and the muscle of his regular backing band the Imposters, this 2020 affair feels as if it was designed to surprise. It comes into focus quite slowly, with reeds and strings murmuring in a quiet drone before Costello launches into the spoken word of "Revolution #49." The spell is broken in a flurry of gnarled guitars that usher in "No Flag," a transition that establishes how Hey Clockface doesn't follow any particular path. Apart from the slight emphasis on poetry -- it surfaces again toward the end of the album on "Radio Is Everything," a track destined to be played in the dead hours of a starless night -- none of the twists on the album are necessarily a new trick from Costello, but the its execution makes every new turn feel slightly surprising, occasionally jarring. Much of this has as much to do with the sequencing of the record as it does the performances themselves. The dense, clever boogie of "Hetty O'Hara Confidential" is followed by the torch song "The Last Confession of Vivian Whip," and the ominous crawl of "We Are All Cowards Now" is countered by a boisterous update of Fats Waller on the album's title track. The parts fit together, just in ways the ear isn't quite accustomed to hearing, and the same is true of many of the arrangements on Hey Clockface. The quieter moments require a listener to concentrate, then they're blown away by the cacophony, lured back in by a generous bit of old-fashioned merriment. It shows Costello's mastery of mood and storytelling, the kind of skill he's acquired over the course of a long career, but the key to Hey Clockface is that these techniques are applied to a record that's as restless as anything Costello made in his younger days.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine