Elvis Costello & The Imposters: The Boy Named If – Playing to his strengths

Declan McManus turns back the clock on songs that reference his late 1970s output

The Boy Named If
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Artist: Elvis Costello & the Imposters
Genre: Rock
Label: EMI

Always changing direction, you might think that 67-year-old Elvis Costello has enjoyed a 40-year-plus career deliberately side-blinding his fans by taking the self-indulgent route of doing anything he damn well wants to. The truth is more prosaic, however, as he has rarely if ever ventured into new territory without knowing what he wants from it, what he feels he can offer and what the results might sound like. His choices haven't always hit the mark, but his unceasing modus operandi has always been to ask "Why not?" instead of "Why?", and it is this insistent line of questioning that has supported his status as one of rock music's most durable figures. With The Boy Named If, Costello has flipped the switch yet again by cleverly turning back the clock with songs that astutely reference (but not reproduce) his 1977-1980 output.

In those punk/post-punk days, Costello was the guy who released catchy songs with lyrics that tripped over themselves. He quickly outran his contemporaries, who had either painted themselves into a corner from which they couldn’t escape or been arrested and locked up by the style police. Costello, however, switched from this to that (country, soul, Americana) and the rest (classical, opera, orchestral, funk, bluegrass, jazz and more besides), all the while maintaining the kind of creative equilibrium that was difficult not to be impressed by. The man’s voice remains an acquired taste, and he can occasionally be as prickly as a roll of barbed wire, but his persistent nature has proven him to be, pretty much, the most explorative of the class of 1977.

Stylistically, The Boy Called If riffs off a recent reworking of his 1978 album, This Year's Model (as Spanish Model, each song of which features guest Hispanic vocalists). Clearly in the mood for more of the same, he corralled his long-time musical partners Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas (both, of course, former members of Costello's ace band, The Attractions) and Davey Faragher, and cracked open a few bottles of spiked Prosecco. The results fizz and snarl big time.

The aim is admirably high for the presentation of this album (there is an accompanying booklet of track introductions, narrative segues, illustrations), but for many, the primary thrust is a bunch of songs that, by and large, quickly catch fire and gracefully smoulder. Costello will deliver something different soon enough, no doubt, but The Boy Named If sees him on terrifically familiar ground, feet apart, fists raised, talking the talk again. Suggestion? Pump it up.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture