ALBUMS: The Wizard of If
On his excellent new album with The Imposters, Elvis Costello reconnects with his inner Angry Young Man
Exploring and subverting practically every genre known to man since his Punk and New Wave beginnings, Elvis Costello is a singular a force in popular music.
He has touched on practically all forms of rock and pop as well as jazz, country, folk, and even classical and soundtrack work. Ultimately, he is none better than in his rock and pop modes both with The Attractions and his newer band The Imposters.
On his most stylistically diverse releases, such as Trust (1981) and Imperial Bedroom (1982), his eclecticism and pop sense dazzle. However, from 1989’s Spike through even the mid-2010s, he made many far-flung stylistic excursions into every manner of songcraft. Often it came across too bloated and had diminishing returns. He also put out albums with his two iterations of bands, The Attractions and more recently The Imposters, respectively, but they became fewer and far between. These often lacked the tightly melodic and energetic songs of his first golden age. This, in my opinion, started with the 1977 debut My Aim is True and roughly ended in 1989 with Spike. With that said, that all seemed to change in the past several years with what is arguably his best one-two punch of the baroque pop infused Look Now (2018) and the rocking Hey Clockface (2020).
Artist: Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Album: The Boy Named If
Label: Capitol Records
★★★ (4/5 stars)
His latest release The Boy Named If continues that winning hot streak, while also acknowledging that it does substantially differ from his early classic release. Still, the sound of Boy is imbued with them just enough to keep long time fans interested in the variety of novel directions Elvis and The Impostors explore. So, let’s get to it.
First, the album opens with the relationship ending organ-driven and bluesy garage stomper “Farewell, OK”. It’s a posy rocker that nods back to his first two albums in a slightly more blues-based direction. A strong opening to the album that doesn’t outstay its welcome and begins the album on a journey of lost love. Next up comes the title track which slows things down while on the lookout for a person who may not even exist. It’s a baroque pop stunner with homages to Imperial Bedroom and Spike. As dense melodically and instrumentally as it is lyrically with prominent organ and great Mccartney-esque basswork throughout. The dissonant piano matches the trippiness of the lyrics as does the surprise strings at the end that recall “Glass Onion” from the White Album.
Then up next a great character sketch “Penelope Halfpenny” is tightly melodic and brings to mind some essence of “Penny Lane” albeit with some fiery religious commentary. The end recalls the dissonant intro and outro from the Imperial Bedroom track “Man Out of Time.” The horns also add a wonderful and regal touch and the driving bassline hints at the influence of past collaborator Paul McCartney. Then things dial down a notch for “The Difference.” The excellent guitar and organ interplay is ever-present although a bit more slight than the opening trio; within the context of the greater album, it segues perfectly. Track 5, “What If I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” burns with the passion of a lover’s plea that the protagonist can’t just be friends, with the melody and accompaniment echoing the lyrics that make way for a piercing guitar solo.
As the album nears its halfway point, things slow down beautifully for “Paint the Red Rose Blue”, which is a great late-career ballad with a beautiful and idiosyncratic ambient piano fade out which comes out of nowhere. Not one to slow things to a halt, the frenetic rocker “Mistook Me for A Friend” follows, and the guitar and organ as well as its fast pace brings to mind This Year’s Model era with lyrics equally bitter continuing on themes of lost love. “My Most Beautiful Mistake” continues where the last song left off thematically albeit in a baroque pop manner, with lovely female backing vocals.
This is directly followed by the almost rockabilly “Magnificent Hurt” which appears to be about a fraught relationship, with a spiky organ throughout to augment the mood. Track ten is “The Man You Love to Hate” which I love for its John Barry meets circus vibe with an especially lovely organ throughout, showing Nieve in top form. “Death of Magic Thinking” seems to be about giving up on one’s dreams and is awesomely accompanied by what appears to be a Latin drum beat or one that could have been lifted from the Beatles song “I Feel Fine.” As the album winds to a close for the final two songs, things slow down again with “Trick Out the Truth” has an almost music hall quality with euphoric European guitar flourishes à la “Michelle” of Rubber Soul fame. It is about finding someone’s secret self beneath the façade they may put up and resonates with anyone who has to mask aspects of themselves to survive. “Mr. Crescent” ends the album on a plaintive and lost note with beautiful strings and keyboards for an almost R&B ballad. A very strong closer to an album made during a period of isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the end, this album continues on his late-career hot streak since Look Now. While it may not quite hit the peaks of his golden era classics, for being nearly 45 years in, this is a great addition to the canon and well worth the listen. Almost all songs have enough rewarding aspects and cohere together to make for an excellent final product and the 52-plus minutes fly by.
While most artists stop creating great art before they get older, Costello teaches youngsters a couple of things or too with his crack band The Imposters and Davey Faragher proves himself a worthy addition to the universe yet again. Buy this album.
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