Elvis Costello and the Imposters
The Boy Name If
This really shouldn't be happening! Artists of a certain (how shall we say) vintage, should not be releasing one of their finest albums at this advanced stage of their career. But there are exceptions to rules 'Time and Out Of Mind', 'American Recordings' 'The Next Day' and 'Blackstar' and, over the last five years, the albums of Elvis Costello...
After finishing his weighty memoir ‘Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink'( 2016), Costello finally made his return to making new music (for someone so prolific, the five years since 'Wise Up Ghost' felt huge), pieced together the exhaustive (sixty track!) version of 'Armed Forces' (1979) and, most absurd of all, took his vocals off 'This Years Model' (1978) and replaced them with a cast of well known Hispanic singers for last years ridiculously good 'Spanish Model'.
Maybe it's the time spent revisiting those visceral early recordings that has reminded Costello of the directness of both his young self and the urgency of his band (two-thirds of which are still present), and that spirit has spilled into his remarkable run of recent albums.
Although 'Look Here' (2018) frequently felt like a close relative of the melancholy drama of his 1998 Burt Bacharach collaboration 'Painted From Memory' (there were three Bacharach co-writes on 'Look Here'), 'Hey Clockface' (2020) was just the right blend of raging guitar pop, mournful ballads, and, here's the surprise, spoken word ruminations. It could be his finest release this century if it wasn't for the fact that 'The Boy Names If' may well overshadow it.
Costello's promise that 'The Boy Named If' would be full of '...urgent, immediate songs with bright melodies' is delivered on with the breathless opener Farewell OK. The frantic pace is set by drummer Pete Thomas (an amazing workout for a 67-year-old) as Costello welcomes us with one of his rawest vocals in a very long time. There's a whiff of his own cover of Little Richard's 'Bama Lama Bama Loo' (from 'Kojak Variety' - his album of covers) in there too.
The title track is closest to the pounding menace of 'Blood and Chocolates'and EC can be so damn sinister at times!(By the way, the character of 'IF' is the imaginary friend that underpins the album's themes the uneasy shift from boyhood to adulthood (Costello had admitted that can take decades to arrive at). There is always space for more of his songs of inner turmoil.
The Boy seems to have some emotional baggage. The bluesy What If I Can't Give You Anything But Love?' is the part preparation for the end of an affair, whilst admissions of wrong in the post-relationship 'Paint the Rose Blue' ('...now she and I share unspeakable pain...' ) is a moment of remorse and reflection. Best of all is the single 'Magnificent Hurt' (the clue, as they say, is in the title), the eternal dilemmas, pleasure, and pain, the Imposters sounding as close to their former incarnation. The classic formula revisited.
Costello watchers have been known to wrongly announce the arrival of one of the artists' best records (I can dig out Q Magazine's bizarre five-star response to the over-saturated mess of 'Mighty Like a Rose' as an example). But this really feels like one of the records that reaffirms why we first got so excited about Elvis.
The Boy Done Good