Elvis Costello has become that rare artist who has been around seemingly forever but emerges every so often to remind us that he’s still at the top of his game. Over a decade after he publicly and alarmingly mused about giving up recording altogether, Costello is back for another kick at the can with The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories) (★★★★☆).
Costello once again shares the limelight with his longtime backing band The Imposters, last heard on 2018’s phenomenal Look Now, an album that owed its success as much to the band’s heavy lifting as it did to Costello’s own talent and magnetism.
This time The Imposters once again work with the singer like a purpose-built machine, whether they are grinding out the classic rock sounds of “Mistook Me For a Friend,” swinging new wavey rhythms on “Hey Penelope,” or producing carnivalesque honky tonk lines on “The Man You Love To Hate.” The album is easily one of Costello’s most internally diverse yet consistently high quality, and it is hard to imagine how it could have been accomplished without the assistance of a band capable of playing in lockstep with its creator.
While it is easy enough to get consumed by the upbeat vibes and miss it, there is a story woven into the album too. The Boy Named If is meant to chart the journey from boyhood to manhood, focusing on what Costello calls “that mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child,” whenever that happens to be.
According to Costello, the boy named “If” in the title is meant to be somewhere between an imaginary friend and an inner self, an idea that Costello fleshes out on the title track. This is where the theme of crossing over into adulthood appears most obviously, but each song is intended as a snapshot of a step along the journey — some of which are cryptic enough that a fan who’s deeply invested in teasing out the meanings should probably consult the limited edition storybook edition of the album.
If Costello’s preoccupation with childhood and inner lives is any indication, this is meant to be a reflective, retrospective album — or at least that’s the mood Costello and the Impersonators seem to have found themselves in on many of its tracks. The single “Farewell OK” opens the album with Costello literally bidding farewell, singing the title repeatedly as if to make it absolutely crystal clear that he’s ready to move on, and he’s feeling just fine with it.
When it comes to setting the tone, the opener’s content may be less significant than Costello’s choice to kick things off with an energetic rock n’ roll number. It not only gives a good indication of what’s about to follow, but signals a return to the styles with which he first made a name for himself. Aside from “Paint the Red Rose Blue” and “My Most Beautiful Mistake,” two somewhat melancholy numbers that also happen to stand out as two of the best songs, Costello is in as upbeat a mood as he’s ever been, reveling in the sounds of his celebrated early work. For all his talk of moving on, he is clearly indebted to his own musical past.
The Boy Named If is as solid and sophisticated an album as we have come to expect from Costello. Even among his stellar recent output, its energetic buoyancy, musical diversity, and sense of fun help it to stand out as the work of a musical icon unapologetically playing to all his strengths.
The Boy Named If is available to stream and download January 14. It is also available on vinyl, CD and cassette formats, as well as an 88-page numbered and signed hardback storybook edition. Visit www.elviscostello.com.
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