For a man now on his 32nd album, you could forgive Elvis Costello for taking it a bit easier these days. On the contrary – A Boy Named If takes off at a cracking pace and doesn’t let up through most of the record’s run-time.
It’s no surprise that this feels like a throwback to Costello’s heydays. He’s joined by his band The Imposters (who are pretty much The Attractions, only with bass player Davey Faragher replacing Bruce Thomas). It also has a real ‘live’ feel to it, which is all the more impressive considering that, given the pandemic conditions, each band member recorded their contribution remotely.
The album itself is a concept work and comes complete with a children’s hardback book, which illustrates the stories behind these songs. According to Costello himself, “If” is a nickname for an imaginary friend, and the album concerns “the last days of a bewildered boyhood to that mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child”.
Luckily, you don’t need to follow the story to appreciate the music. A Boy Named If is Costello on typically smart, spiky form – from the opening garage rock racket of Forever OK right through to the closing lament of Mr Crescent (one of the few tracks on the album where the tempo is taken down a notch), it’s a real throwback to the days of This Year’s Model.
Forever OK also shows that Costello hasn’t mellowed with age – snarling lines like “I thought you’d change, and get a little humble” like his life depends upon it. What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is classic Costello, attacking his guitar with gusto and singing lines like “when this is over I’ll go back to my wife, and the man that she lives with in that other life”.
Costello is, of course, a master at packing little stories into three minute songs. Paint The Red Rose Blue is an achingly sad ballad in the mould of A Good Year For The Roses – just a line like “he called his wife by a nickname, as his father had done” sums up the toxic masculinity of the protagonist.
Then there’s My Most Beautiful Mistake, which could almost be a novel in itself, all about a voyeur in a cafe attempting to lure a waitress into a more questionable word – “you’ll be up on that screen for eternity” before he takes his leave in an almost cinematic way (“he went out for cigarettes, as the soundtrack played The Marvelettes“).
The woozy, cabaret-like melodies of The Man You Love To Hate is another highlight, while the ringing chorus of Penelope Halfpenny brings to mind another old Costello song, Veronica. Throughout it all, it’s good to hear Steve Nieve moved back to the forefront – many of these songs are built around the keyboard sound that he’s made famous over the past 40 years or so.
None of this will come as any surprise to seasoned Costello watchers – indeed, it could be argued he’s been on a creative purple patch since 2018’s Look Now. For those who thought that age may have dimmed the fire that’s always been Costello’s trademark, A Boy Named If is proof positive that the opposite is true.