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ELVIS COSTELLO'S
SONGS IN THE
KEY OF IF

“I don’t really think about genre,” Elvis Costello insists.

Certainly his new album, The Boy Named If (due on 1/14 via Capitol in the U.S. and EMI elsewhere), resists genre classification, if that’s your thing. What’s most striking about it, on first listen, is how comfortably it assays a variety of sounds and styles. Costello’s career-long determination to venture outside his apparent comfort zone at every opportunity—delving intrepidly into country, soul, modern classical, jazz, avant-funk, cabaret, chanson, you name it, and collaborating with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and The Roots, among others—has simply resulted in a much bigger comfort zone. Which is why the new set, however eclectic, feels remarkably cohesive.

For those enamored most of the spiky/melodic rock that made him famous, there’s plenty to dig into here. Lead single “Magnificent Hurt” is growing at the AAA format, having moved into the Top 20 on the Mediabase chart.

Among the many other standouts on the set, which was produced by Sebastian Krys and Costello: the incandescent “My Most Beautiful Mistake” (with additional vocals by Nicole Atkins), the swoon-inducing “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the raunchily retrospective “Penelope Halfpenny,” the tumbling, vertiginous “The Death of Magic Thinking” and the extraordinary Halloween reverie “Trick Out the Truth,” with its kaleidoscopic litany of pop-cultural icons (including Laurel and Hardy, pictured with Costello below).

“I’ve described The Boy Named If as a kind of fairy tale and—for those who want an artifact—I have actually made it into a physical storybook,” he relates, referring to the 88-page hardback volume, signed and numbered by the author, that accompanies the music. “But the title song presents this idea, not of an imaginary friend, but a sort of imaginary other self. One who might break your heart without intending to, who might succumb to these darker impulses.”

Musically, the album offers some of Elvis Costello’s most focused and compelling work of the last decade. The Imposters, his trusty band, deliver valiantly with the same song-savvy energy that has buoyed his best-known records. “Pete Thomas’ drum kit is the same one he played on This Year’s Model, and the sound of that kit in a small room with a couple of mics is better than you’d spend days getting in most studios,” Costello points out, noting that the earliest recordings of these songs featured only his voice and guitar and Thomas’ able drumming. Next came the intuitive bass parts of Davey Faragher and, finally, the virtuoso bricolage of keyboardist Steve Nieve.

The band truly cooked during their recent L.A. show at the YouTube Theater, where they were joined by the brilliant Charlie Sexton on lead guitar, giving Elvis more room in all respects.

“Most of my guitar ‘solos’ are really motifs, not really expressed as traditional solos,” he says. “The lines I play on 'What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love' are closer to what I never ordinarily do in the studio: play an emotional cry when the words run out. Similarly, 'Magnificent Hurt' had to have a solo that was that crank and crooked. That's the way that kind of thing feels.”

The L.A. crowd’s response to the new material, most of which they’d never heard before, was thunderous. Indeed, the Boy Named If songs meshed quite seamlessly with the thoughtful menu of stone classics and inventive excursions in the set.

“This tour was the first chance to hear what these songs we’d recorded from our remote lairs sounded like as played by a band, and it was very gratifying that the audiences responded so strongly to the new material. But we also tried to play some more familiar songs a bit differently. And you don’t want to disappoint people and not play something like [the Nick Lowe-penned Elvis perennial] '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,' even though at this moment that idea seems more elusive than ever. But you don’t want to give up on that idea, because then the game of love and life is over. There must sometimes be room for that song and 'We Are All Cowards Now' [from 2020’s Hey Clockface] in the same show. They essentially consider the same theme.”

Since Costello mentioned the kit Thomas used on 1978’s This Year’s Model—and the fascination those early records continue to exert—we should also note that his new album appears in the wake of this year’s inspired Spanish Model, which finds the tracks from Costello’s second LP reworked in Spanish by an array of artists including Juanes, La Marisoul, Luis Fonsi, Raquel Sofia, Nina Diaz and Fito Páez. It’s a revelation in many respects, not least because Costello’s spiky, allusive lyrics gain much more than they lose in translation. As the man himself remarks: “I was struck that on Spanish Model songs I’d written back then about women seen through the eyes of a young man were now being sung, in several instances, by young women, in another language in every sense.”

Now, with The Boy Named If, fans can experience yet another metamorphosis in the career of an artist who’s made change a constant.

Photo credits: Mark Seliger, Dexter McManus

NEAR TRUTHS:
THE HOUSE WINS
I.B. Bad handicaps the Vegas Grammys. (1/18a)
ON THE COVER:
THE LUMINEERS
The downside of BRIGHTSIDE for Wes and Jer (1/18a)
HITS LIST MAKES
THE PLAYOFFS
A bunch of All-Pros takes the field. (1/18a)
COACHELLA LINEUP: HARRY, YE, BILLIE AND THE WHOLE THING
The poster has been printed. (1/13a)
UTA: A YEAR OF MOMENTUM
Agency reshuffles the deck. (1/18a)
I DON'T WANNA WORK
I just wanna bang on my drum all day.
I HAVE A HANGOVER
I like to call it "2021."
I DON'T WANNA HAVE A MEETING
My Zoom backgrounds are all outdated.
I MISS CHRISTMAS
When's the next holiday that involves eggnog?
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