Elvis Costello & the Imposters
The Boy Named If
Creating a narrative about one imaginary friend seems at first a bittersweet story more suited to one of Elvis Costello’s more cosmopolitan sets of compositions—a lyrical twist for a Bacharach collaboration or something small and quiet dreamed up by the singer and his longtime pianist/organist Steve Nieve. The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories, as goes its subtitle) is usually gruffer than that, rough stuff with rocky guitars and flinty Farfisas tied to the Costello of yore—the lean, mean early-days punk showing up paradoxes, sowing wild oats, and ripping off puns.
Is there nostalgia to all this, to cleverly cliff-hanging lines such as “Resting in the parlor / Playing cards with Gustav Mahler” (from closer “Trick Out the Truth”), which linger like Noel Coward thought bubbles? Or to The Imposters playing swinging, bash-about pub rock? Probably. Costello spent a chunk of 2021 looking backward to 1978 with a new, various-artists Latinx re-envisioning of This Year’s Model as Spanish Model, so perhaps that vintage album’s prickly vibe rubbed off on he, Nieve, and drummer Pete Thomas, the originators of This Year’s Model’s nervousness.
Wrapped in a pimply, boys-to-men conceptualism, so much of Boy Named If is of a sneery, stabby nature and blunter than Costello’s more sophisticated recent songcraft such as 2018’s Look Now. “I thought you’d change / Get a little humble / You strike your strange disposition / Like a drummer hits a cymbal,” spits Costello in “Farewell, OK” to the accompaniment of mellow-harshing guitars, a noodling Farfisa, and kicking rhythms. The creepy mischief behind “Magnificent Hurt,” meanwhile, is almost as sinister as hearing the beautiful, even brutal indecision of Costello’s lyrics. On the deceptively simple “What If I Can’t Give You Anything but Love?” Costello wrangles forth a fleeting, ominous guitar solo in between rapid-fire mouthfuls of tortured religious impressionism (“Once hearing confession / Was my profession”) and sad-eyed romanticism (“Don’t you need me, baby? / Not one little bit? / Don’t fix me with that deadly gaze / It’s a little close to pity”).
Even when slowing things down on the baleful ballad “Paint the Red Rose Blue,” Costello sounds as if he’s rushing the punchline through his protagonist’s rarely remembered wildest of dreams. That’s good and…not so good. Costello’s mind-racing, overly loquacious, more-pounce-to-the-ounce aesthetic is both his signature and his curse. You can sense Elvis pulling across the seams of the Beatles-esque “Penelope Halfpenny” and straining to contain himself from caterwauling off the edge of the over-aweingly wordy “The Man You Love to Hate” and “The Death of Magic Thinking”—Costello talks so much and crams such lucid, erudite phrasing into one stanza, I’m forced to stretch out a word such as “over-aweingly” just to describe it. With that, this boy is beautiful, ornery, jittery, and brusquely energetic. Its father could just use some editing skills.