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The Earliest Bird: Top New Recorded Release 11-14-22 – 11-20-22, Elvis Costello and The Imposters” “A Boy Named If…” Reviewed

Around six and a half years ago Elvis Costello was on his “Detour” tour, plugging the yet to see the light of day songs to the missing book for “A Face In The Crowd” (here). It would have been enormously prescient, and his best work of the 21st century, if he had dropped it. He should have taken his lead from Andrew Lloyd Webber and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and released it as an album and then shopped it to the Schuberts. As is, we still haven’t heard a recorded version of his magnificent “American Mirror”…

Instead he continued his sucking in the 21st century, overweaned, overwrought, way too clever for his own good. In the tens we got some awful stuff: Wise Up Ghost, Look Now, and the dreaded Eurotrash Hey Clockface. It seemed as though while Elvis could roll out the greatest moments 1977 – 1982 at his untouchable best in concert, he couldn’t replicate either musically or, really, emotionally, his greatest moments.

The Boy Named If… is also too busy emotionally, it is a collection of song vignettes based upon his children’s book of adult short stories available with the box set of the album, and it certainly didn’t need an additional flip of storytelling – a bad habit Elvis has had since Spike at the latest; when you keep repeating “this is not me” you are building a wedge between yourself and your audience, especially for a man whose calling card used to be his deep understanding of himself and his audience. Gone, all gone… But having said that, last year we got the Spanish language version of This Year’s Model, with Spanish popstars singing to the original recordings, produced by Sebastian Krys, who also co-produced all of Elvis’s albums since 2018 (except for the Roots one). So maybe Spanish Model taught Krys something, or perhaps it taught two thirds of The Attraction something, or maybe simple isolation pushed Costello to make a racket. Whatever the reason, The Boy Named If… is the best Attractions (ahem, sorry Davey Faragher, I mean Imposters) since Brutal Youth, it is demonstrably better than When I Was Cruel, which attempted a similar holographic but couldn’t pull it off.

Here Costello is on his game, he doesn’t capture the zeitgeist the way he might have with “A Face In The Crowd” yet recorded during the pandemic, Elvis and Pete Thomas recorded together, Steve Nieve and Davey Faragher emailed files, and Sebastian and Elvis pasted them together, it is a flashlight on a time already passed. It should sound patchy, and while there are a couple of over reach woofers, song for song it is a hard rocking return to The Imposters sound as well as clever, clever lyricism which if they don’t have the reach of his early work you can at least partially agree it is because who he is doesn’t resonate that way.

From set opener (originally written as a fare-thee-not well to 2020), “Farewell, Okay” to the martial beat powerhouse of “The Death Of Magic Thinking” (third to last song) it is terrific. “Magic Thinking” is a smart song, one of the best, equating losing his virginity with how obvious life is, the band together the same way as always they follows him so thoroughly: it is exactly what you dream of in a new wave rhythm section. It maintains the barely controlled hysteria of the album and the add of Steve’s rock classicism and the spitting, spurring Elvis vocal, is a glory. It is all of a piece, “Farewell, Okay” is followed by the title track and while the two wouldn’t fit into This Year’s Model, it is so clearly the same pen and the bridge is one of his best maybe ever. There are mistakes and the “Veronica” soundalike “Penelope Halfpenny” sucks, it is the sort of soft sell that seems to play his “Miss Macbeth” (from how can you miss what you never had to to how can you miss what you’ve had too much of) and shouldn’t. Then it steadies out and the two ballads (one of which I disliked last year) are terrific, “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” though too fast for a straight ballad so maybe consider it a rocker, is clear enough for a straight love song and “Paint The Red Rose Blue” I dismissed last year and I got it wrong, perhaps the loveliest song on the album he takes what he learnt from George Jones and adds it to what he learnt from Burt Bacharach.

Nobody believes this is Imperial Bedroom or Get Happy!! while it is light years ahead of National Ransom and many of those 90s albums. If Costello’s last great album was Spanish Model, and the one before that Painted By Memory, A Boy Named If… is upper echelon Elvis. It is a real good album.

Grade: A-

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