Forty five years and 37 albums – give or take if we count all his collaborative efforts – into his career as a recording artist, Elvis Costello is a known entity, we have a good idea what to expect from him, which is usually change. While he’s revealed artistic courage and dexterity in his willingness to expand his musical vocabulary – whether it’s working with songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, or Allen Toussaint, exploring country roots with T Bone Burnett, mixing it up with hip hop virtuosos The Roots, the classical ensemble Brodsky Quartet, or dappling in opera and even writing for a Broadway musical – Costello eventually returns to his early rock roots and his long-time bandmates in The Imposters.
When The Fire Note caught Costello in Cincinnati late in 2019 before the pandemic shut live concerts down, they were reunited on the “Just Trust Tour”, supported be two fine background singers. Their lengthy set managed to touch numerous aspects of the songwriter’s lengthy career, but were never stronger than on the classic rockers, “Clubland,” “Mystery Dance,” Watching the Detectives,” “Radio Radio,” and “Pump It Up.” While I loved everything his played that night, including the lovely classic ballad “Alison” and the Nick Lowe written “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” after one of his more frenzied performances I remember telling my wife, “I’ll have more of that.”
At the time of that tour, Costello’s most recent album had been his first album in 8 year, and while 2018’s Look Now marked a return to recording with The Imposters, the songwriting leaned heavily in the direction of his work with Bacharach and included lots of orchestrated string arrangements. On his 2020 album, Hey Clockface, Costello released a couple guitar heavy rockers, but they were electronic experiments recorded in a studio in Helsinki where he played all the instruments, while most of the record was recorded in Paris with Steve Nieve and brass quintet, with two tracks recorded in New York with jazz musician Michael Leonhart and guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline (Wilco).
All of that to explain that here on The Boy Named If, we have the first full on band album from Costello & The Imposters since 2008’s furious “Momofuku,” which featured Jenny Lewis on backing vocals on several tracks. On the opening rock & roll throw-back, “Farewell, OK,” which opens with ringing fast guitar chords as if channeling first namesake, the Elvis with the magic pelvis, the song features Nieve’s deliciously cheesy Farfisa organ sound, while the rhythm section of drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher deliver the fun sock hop dance vibe. For the record, Nieve and Thomas were in The Attractions, Costello’s original back-up band formed shortly after the release of his 1977 debut, “My Aim Is True.” In 2002, Faragher replaced original bassist Bruce Thomas (no relation), after playing in Cracker and with John Hiatt, and the unit became the Imitators.
The album’s title track suggests what Costello has described in interviews as a look back on that period “from the last days of bewildered boyhood to the mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child,” making The Boy Named If, the invisible friend on whom you could blame all of your mistakes until people start really holding you accountable for your actions. Given that context, the potent yearning expressed in the wailing first single “Magnificent Hurt” makes perfect sense, the stomping beat and emergency siren in the strangled guitar solo, and the lyrics describing the loss of one’s first love and “the pain that I felt let me know I was still alive.” It’s excruciating, yet delicious at the same time. All together the song drives with the same urgency that thrilled in “Pump Me Up,” exhibiting the many strengths in The Imposters when they’re cranking on all cylinders.
The amazing thing is that it feels like the band here is playing live together in a tight, intimate groove, but the album was recorded with Costello & Thomas working together in one studio, guitars and voice and the solid beat of the drums, then sending the recordings off for Faragher to add bass and Nieve’s keyboards, which so often interact with Costello’s voice and guitar. It’s a bit of recording studio magic made possible by co-producer Sebastian Krys, who’s worked on Look Now and Spanish Model, a reworking of Costello’s 1978 release This Year’s Model in Spanish with indigenous language singers replacing his vocals.
Other musical highlights include “The Death of Magic Thinking,” set to a storming Bo Diddley beat, “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” when a adulterous lover final admits he’ll not be leaving his family and tumultuous emotions mess that pours out into the song’s passionate delivery, and the raging reaction to betrayal in “Mistook Me For a Friend,” which finds Costello at is most verbose. There’s lots of examples here of Costello’s notoriously clever plays on words, again his literate storytelling is engaging while taking on the foibles of human struggle when we fail to acknowledge “The Difference” between wrong and right, and turn into our own worst enemy, “The Man You Love to Hate.”
At this point, with all those classic songs already in his catalog, it’s impossible to not hear flashbacks to previous Costello hits here and there. In the ballad like verses of “My Most Beautiful Mistake,” you recognize phrases that recall the emotional moves of “Alison.” At this point, Costello’s take is so ingratiating that these self-referential moments become a feature not a weakness. In all this is the record we’ve been hoping for from Elvis Costello and The Imposters, even if we could not have guessed the exact content and framing of these songs, you just can’t see this band live and not suspect they have another great rock & roll album in them, and at this moment The Boy Named If is that album.
Key Tracks: “Magnificent Hurt” / “Mistook Me For a Friend” / “Farewell, OK”
Artists With Similar Fire: Joe Jackson / The Smithereens / Spoon