Elvis Costello released The Boy Named If in January, and it will likely end up as one of the top releases of 2022. In fact, it may be considered one of the best among his 32-album career. A work of spirited and creative aggressiveness, this album keeps coming at you.
One of the great elements of Costello’s history is that he’s the ultimate box of musical chocolates: with each release, you never know what you’ll get. Having said that, Costello has done the switcheroo, as this album doesn’t break any new ground. Rather, (like what Bruce Springsteen achieved with his 2020 Letter to You) Costello has perfected the formula he established a long time ago. On this one, he goes back to his roots, but with the band’s 45-year history, this collection avoids sounding stale or aged.
What makes this collection even more outstanding is that at no time was the band in the same room together. Each member found themselves recording from different countries during the pandemic. Costello was at his home in Vancouver, drummer Pete Thomas recorded his parts from the UK, keyboard wizard Steve Nieve was in France, and the lone American of the band, bassist Davey Faragher, was home in California. Yet, these separate pieces sound like one tight unit.
Elvis has said in recent media interviews that being “ultimately inhibited by the virus in our houses made the band fearless in the music.” Co-Produced by Sebastian Krys (ensconced in Los Angeles) who produced the last two Elvis albums, Costello has not been this raw since Brutal Youth (1994) or Blood and Chocolate (1986)
This album is ultimately about growing out of childhood. Costello has explained that “’If’ is a nickname for an imaginary friend, your secret self, the one who knows everything you deny, the one you blame for the shattered crockery and the hearts you break, even your own.” His lyrics delve into memories of his middle school psyche, dealing with the ambitions of love, the discovery of girls, and attempted sex. In “The Death of Magic Thinking,” he sings, “She took my hand in an experiment. Put it where it shouldn’t be. Put it underneath her dress and waited to see. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. It was just a game I guess, one that I didn’t know how to play.” The song’s message is: yes, girls mature faster than boys.
In “The Difference,” Costello tackles the tough subject of parental abuse. He sings, “My father shamed me just like you, buried my name in a glass or two. ‘Til he came to see me in his darkest house, he mistook me for his spouse. And he cries for a woman in the distance, so I took this knife to show him the difference.” But yet, this song, like so many others on the album, ends unresolved. Costello comes up short with adult insight or a moral to the story. Mirroring real life, some songs simply don’t have clear principled conclusions.
All of the tracks are emotional. “Paint the Red Rose Blue” could have found its place on Costello’s 1998 duet with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory.
I’m still wiping away the goosebumps from the clavinet line played by Steve Nieve in “What If I Can’t Give You Anything but Love?” And I still remember wanting to jump out of my seat when EC and The Imposters played the opening track, “Farewell, OK” during an October concert (note the “I Saw Her Standing There” bass line). This is rock and roll of old, the welcome kind that gets under your skin.
At 67, Elvis Costello still brings the boundless energy of youth with this bright, smart, and piercing performance. Play The Boy Named If loud — and in your car- and you’ll feel 30 years younger.
Photo: Elvis Costello (Getty Images)