Album: The Boy Named If
Artist: Elvis Costello and The Imposters
Released: January 14th, 2022
Highlights: Farewell OK, The Difference, Paint the Red Rose Blue, Magnificent Hurt
It is a fact of life that most artists go through a very defined creative cycle as their careers go along. Early on, sometimes immediately and sometimes following a few works that display growing pains, they come off as musical revelations that can do no wrong, as the combination of a fresh artistic vision and the sharp pen of youth paves the way towards greatness. After that successful stretch, which to some lasts only one record and to others might be extended for quite a while, a degree of dullness begins to set it, be it because the songwriting chops start to fade or because said artist fails to successfully evolve past the musical style that initially brought them so many laurels. At that point, a fork on the road appears; one that, some may argue, separates the great from the good, the average, and even the bad. For while in some cases the degradation of creative output is irreversible, with the path ahead only presenting diminishing returns, others are able to take a higher ground that will lead to some late-career achievements.
Given he is neither Nick Cave nor Tom Waits, two of the few who have somehow escaped this narrative of ups-and-downs to stay exclusively on the road of creative success, Elvis Costello has followed this route. His initial run of glory came to a halt with the nadir of his career, 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World”, and ever since then Costello has failed to reach the highs of that first run. In Elvis’ case, though, the narrative comes with a caveat, because despite the fact his discography since the 1980s holds no equals to classics such as 1978’s “This Year’s Model” and 1980’s “Get Happy!!”, the once angry and nerdy British punk has at least managed to keep the journey interesting and dignified thanks to a pen that still has some bite as well as a wish to experiment and build collaborations inside a myriad of musical genres, such as classical, R&B, baroque pop, and even hip hop.
As strange as it may sound, Costello’s remarkable consistency in the decades following his peak years is somehow detrimental to the perception of how good “The Boy Named If”, his 32nd album, actually is. The reason is quite simple: when an artist has been consistently good, but never exceptionally bright, for so long, it is pretty easy to take their presence and their achievements for granted. As such, any claims that point to the latest release by Elvis Costello as a work of some quality do not leave much of an impact in the ears of those who are still keeping track of the man’s career; after all, he has been so steady for such a lengthy period of time that the fact he has put out a good work is not news: it is almost a given. On the heels of such regularity, the only shocking news that could come out of Costello’s camp is if he happened to fall on his face and put out a record as bad as “Goodbye Cruel World” or as dull as “North”.
To correctly put “The Boy Named If” in perspective, rather than singing praises to its quality, a better strategy – therefore – is going ahead and relying on the old cliche of claiming this is the best record the artist has put out since a stellar and preferably very old album of choice. In the case of “The Boy Named If”, it might be the best release by Costello since 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom”. Of course, every listener’s mileage varies, especially when it comes to a songwriter with such a large, varied, and consistent discography as Elvis; consequently, there are those who might prefer his soulful collaboration with legendary Allen Toussaint, “The River in Reverse”; the frantic and wordy country of “King of America”; the rocking rebirth of “When I Was Cruel”; or the catchy material of “All This Useless Beauty”. However, quite likely, longtime Costello fans will hold “The Boy Named If” in very high regard.
Opener and third single “Farewell, OK” might lead one to think “The Boy Named If” is successful because after roaming through quieter realms of pop music, Costello has opted to pull out his guitar to rock like he did in the late 1970s. Considering the tune’s vicious riff, furious pace, and nearly shouted vocals, that is an easy assumption to make; one that is further confirmed by other noisier cuts on the album, like “Mistook Me for a Friend” and “Magnificent Hurt”, a duo where a mighty beat constructed around bass and drums as well as keyboards who sound fiercely cutting bring back memories of the “This Year’s Model” era. However, as a whole, the Costello seen in “The Boy Named If” is not the angry punk of his early days, but the pop chameleon that would emerge from 1979’s “Armed Forces” onward.
Considering Costello’s stunning eclecticism, it would be a bit unfair to say “The Boy Named If” is an excellent display of his multiple facets; after all, thirteen tracks and fifty-one minutes is far from being enough to encompass every genre he has toyed with during his career. Yet, “The Boy Named If” almost qualifies as a friendly abbreviated summary. There are sophisticated, percussive, and playful exercises that tread the line between pop and rock (“Penelope Halfpenny” and “The Death of Magic Thinking”); there are impressive and immediately likable electric ballads (“The Difference” and “My Most Beautiful Mistake”) as well as a gorgeous piano-based meditation (“Paint the Red Rose Blue”); there are heavy and loud guitar attacks (“The Boy Named If” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?”); and even a couple of melodic detours into theatrical vaudevillian terrain (“The Man You Love to Hate” and “Trick Out the Truth”).
All in all, it is not a recipe that is new when it comes to Costello albums; in fact, his previous release, 2020’s “Hey Clockface”, already displayed a similar combination, even if it had a larger focus on mellower tunes. However, this time around the proceedings feel different due to how Elvis sounds absolutely revitalized. It is not because he rocks out more often, though that certainly helps; it is simply due to how “The Boy Named If” has neither dullness nor notable missteps. Sure, some songs are more interesting than others, and that evaluation will most likely hinge on what flavor of Elvis Costello every listener enjoys the most and the least. But overall, the record feels like peak Costello because he is clearly operating in maximum force both in melodies and lyrics. Truth be told, even through the lowest of his lows, Elvis retained the ability to come up with absolutely fantastic couplets, but in “The Boy Named If” he returns to the mojo of his peak. Melodically, meanwhile, where some of his recent works had some less-than-inspired moments, “The Boy Named If” is consistently good with remarkable and plentiful peaks.
Because of that, Costello’s 2022 release gives him the undeniable late-career peak that many of his songwriting peers had already achieved. To mention a few, “The Boy Named If” is to Elvis what the trilogy starting with “Time Out of Mind” was to Bob Dylan, what “The Rising” and “Magic” were to Bruce Springsteen, what “Old Ideas” was to Leonard Cohen, and what “Turbulent Indigo” was to Joni Mitchell: a late-career victory that more than being good is actually a return to the form of the days of glory. Since Elvis Costello never struggled creatively for as long as those other legends, it is easy to take “The Boy Named If” for granted as yet another solid work. But it only takes a few listens for one to realize this is quite a special pearl on a consistent sequence of gems.