I first became aware of Elvis Costello’s music after hearing the reggae noir of the My Aim Is True single “Watching The Detectives” on my local Manchester, Vermont, alternative-rock station WEQX, and since then, his brash and over-enunciated, detailed narration has been a near-constant companion in my life. Recently, my wife made an offhand remark about Costello that kind of cracked his whole thing open and helped me to appreciate him even more. We were listening to Trust while cleaning our house when she described him as “edgy restaurant rock.” I knew she intended it as a well-timed, expertly executed burn on Declan McManus. But it could also be one of the more perfect descriptions I’ve heard of his persona as a brash, quick-witted songsmith who could cut it up with the punks and put on a suit to schmooze with elite rock dilettantes, only to spill their secrets to anyone who would listen.
Skilled with the pen, and with a breadth of musical knowledge that stretched outside of pub rock and power-pop compositions, Costello has made his fair share of brave choices that seem more puzzling now when you look at them in retrospect. Albums like the haunting baroque pop of Harle: Terror and Magnificence and the bluegrass of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane make all the sense in the world if you are a dedicated fan, but may seem curious if you are only familiar with the punchy hits that defined his Ray Ban-donned “New Wave” persona. But no one would be at fault to long for Costello and his long-running backing band The Imposters—who are the same Attractions lineup of Steve Nieve on keys and Pete Thomas on drums, with Davey Faragher filling in on bass for Bruce Thomas—to cut an album of nervy pop tunes in the mold of his classics like This Year’s Model and Armed Forces. Over the last few years, Costello has fed that hunger with a pair of fantastic return-to-form albums, 2018’s Look Now and 2020’s Hey Clockface. Now, with his brand new album The Boy Named If, he caps off this trio with a dense collection of both risks and hooks that doesn’t feel like a stamping of feet for attention or merely providing fan service.
On the album’s thundercrack lead-off track and recent single “Farewell OK,” the band sound as rejuvenated as ever, with Costello’s “sorry-but-not-sorry” snarl and Nieve’s signature Vox Continental organ peppered throughout the British invasion-inspired rock rave-up. Even though Costello and the band revisited This Year’s Model for a Spanish re-imagining last year, the other album that seems to be sneaking into his purview on The Boy Named If is 1986’s Blood and Chocolate. Its performances’ menacing aggression and the direct treatment of Costello’s vocals are inline with that album’s kiss-off nature. It’s especially thrilling to hear Elvis returning to the part of the sleazy snake oil salesmen on the highlight “Mistook Me For a Friend,” sneering lines like, “I had a pocket full of presidents, a suitcase full of elements,” and “Went to the carnival for candy and confusion.”
Best of all is the amped-up infidelity quandary “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” The song adopts the off-kilter shuffle of the Fab Four’s “Dig A Pony” or Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” with Thomas proving once again why he may be the greatest drummer to emerge from punk’s first wave. In Costello’s memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he explains that he first gained confidence as a singer after hearing Rick Danko’s wounded yelps on The Band’s albums like Music From Big Pink. Perhaps this approach to singing might explain his unwavering strength as a vocalist, as he sounds strong as ever on “Anything But Love.” When he hits the high note in its climax, it’s hard to believe he’s just three years shy of 70.
The recording of the album is a marvel all on its own. When checking in with newer releases from artists of the same era, the production quality tends to be one of the biggest areas of disappointment. So many legacy artists either try to doctor away the aging process with treated vocals, or create synthetic robo-performances with the aid of producers who miss the point of what made the artists great in the first place. That could be a loss of perspective from a coddled artist resting on their accolades. But you get a sense listening to The Boy Named If that Costello and The Imposters understand that the fire they had in those albums from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was worth chasing, warts and all. In a recent interview with Costello’s old producer and friend Nick Lowe on the Aquarium Drunkard: Transmissions Podcast, Lowe told host Jason P. Woodbury that Costello had asked him if he would be interested in recording with the band again at a session they had booked at Abbey Road. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when the pandemic made it impossible, forcing each band member to send in their individual parts for Costello and Sebastian Krys to piece together. But hearing the record, you can tell Costello and Krys did some reverse engineering on the albums that Lowe helmed. You can hear it on the cracking snare sound of songs like “The Death Of Magical Thinking” and “Farewell OK.” Maybe one day we’ll get those two legends back into the studio to recapture those old spirits. But for now, you really can’t argue with these results.
By now, Costello has earned the right to throw away any advice on editing down his records. But if there is one complaint to be made of The Boy Named If, it’s that it falls short of being the compact blast of a record that it could have been. At 13 songs and close to an hour long, the album would highly benefit from losing two or three songs in favor of adding precision to its impact. While it’s a beautiful ballad, “Paint The Red Rose Blue” would be better served on a different more relaxed album. Never adverse to hamming it up, Costello indulges his ragtime fandom via the tuneless quasi-carnival pop of the anti-fascist “Trick Out The Truth” that drags out the album’s final stretch. Both of those low-key numbers are bested by the Nicole Atkins duet “My Most Beautiful Mistake” and the album’s excellent closing ballad, “Mr. Crescent.” If those tracks were treated more as moments of reprieve amidst a fiery set of rockers, they would stand out for the sweet dynamic shifts that they are. With so much of our time feeling more precious than ever, you can’t be upset at Costello for over-delivering when he has the opportunity. With The Boy Named If, Costello and The Imposters show they are still capable of kicking each other under the table at the restaurant, showing their fangs to the manager when they’ve been told to leave.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Revisit a 1978 Costello performance from the Paste archives below.