I don’t know why it seems like a surprise, but Elvis Costello’s “The Boy Named If” is maybe a masterpiece. And the surprise comes because it’s Costello’s second in three years. His “Look Now,” released in October 2018, won a Grammy Award just in February 2020.
Costello is 67, and has been working away as a provocative and witty songwriter for almost 45 years. His first album, “My Aim is True,” was one of those extraordinary debuts in 1977 that heralded a new generation of punk and New Wave. But it was deceptive. Costello’s most famous song isn’t a rock number. It’s a seething ballad. “Alison” says more about Costello than anything. He loves to rock, but his heart remains in show tunes, R&B, jazz, folk, country. He is elemental in that way.
So many dozens of albums and songs, beloved by his fans, led up to “Look Now.” It’s the kind of album you can play over and over and keep discovering new cool moments, riffs, turns of phrase. “Look Now” was followed by “Hello Clockface,” which was a place holder– several good songs, but no cohesion. After four decades, Costello was allowed.
But now comes “The Boy Named If,” a baker’s dozen of head on classics, very eclectic all. Some sound like they could be from Brecht-Weill. “The Man Love You to Hate” is one of those, and it’s rave up comes pretty way in. on track 10. Indeed, the end of this album is almost better than the beginning, and that’s saying a lot. The record concludes with “Mr. Crescent,” one of the most beautiful songs Costello has ever written.
“The Boy Named If” was recorded remotely, which makes it even more of a triumph. All the musicians were in different places, separated by COVID restrictions. How producer Sebastian Krys and Costello turned this into a seamless production is the huge achievement. (Luckily I got to hear some if it live this fall so I know it can be played, and how good it sounds in front of an audience.) From the blazing kick off of “Farewell, OK.” through “Magnificent Hurt” and track four, “The Difference,” Costello and his Impostors never let go. They just grab you by the throat as if it were 1978 and this was “This Year’s Model,” his second record.
Some of the songs are light, many are dark. Costello always says he considers the fourth track of album to be key. So “The Difference,” a harrowing tale sung in abused daughter’s voice, is the place where “The Boy Named If” has to make itself work. And what starts a romantic recollection turns into something nightmarish and unforgettable. And there is also traditional Costello wordplay, as in “Trick the Truth Out.” There’s also some nice name dropping used to good purpose:
Mussolini and his mistress in defeat
The Marxists cheer a working girl
Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Karl
She’s tattooed from her head to toe
She’s inky like a girl I know
A contagion of invidia
Just like the famous Lydia
Just like Helen, late of Troy
The Myna Bird, the Myrna Loy
Bud and Lou were wrestling in the parlour
Playing cards with Gustav Mahler
We are calling every hand and every hold
I will write more about “The Boy Named If” over the weekend. The members of the Imposters– Steve Nieve (keyboards), Davy Faragher (bass and vocals), Pete Thomas (drums, percussion)– deserve their own plaques for the most interesting work done by any group on any record in recent memory. How the four of these people make this enormous, rich, textured sound is their secret, and again, they did it apart from each other!
Costello knows this album is special. He’s selling an illustrated book with it on his website (I’m awaiting my order now). He’s doing all kinds of video promotion. A Grammy in 2023? Yes, sure. But a wide, appreciative audience for “The Boy Named If” would be the bigger reward.
More to come…