During the pandemic, plenty of musicians have unveiled their quieter, scaled-down, more reflective sides. Elvis Costello, typically, had other ideas.
His 2020 album, “Hey Clockface,” was a high-contrast miscellany: urbanely retro acoustic pop, bruising rockers, otherworldly electronics. For “Spanish Model” in 2021, he gathered Spanish-speaking rockers to translate lyrics and replace his own vocals on the tracks from “This Year’s Model,” his fierce, punky 1978 album with the Attractions. Apparently revisiting the Attractions at their most aggressive sparked something. On “The Boy Named If,” Costello is rejoined by his perennial band the Imposters — the original Attractions with a replacement bassist — for songs that kick hard and deep. It’s anything but quiet.
“The Boy Named If” has an elaborate superstructure. Its deluxe version adds an 88-page book written and illustrated by Costello: “The Boy Named If and Other Children’s Tales.”
It’s not made for children, though. Each song gets a prose vignette — sometimes fleshing out the lyrics, sometimes sketching alternate scenarios — alongside bright, blocky, big-eyed drawings. The vignettes, like the songs, are full of Costello’s jumpy wordplay, and they involve lust, infidelity, violence, predation, betrayal, deception, self-deception and other grown-up pastimes.
The situations and wordplay are knotty; often, they crash youthful illusions into adult disillusion. The album’s stomping title track posits a lucky, seductive, elusive imaginary friend, “the boy named If,” who always escapes consequences. In “What if I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?,” over a swaggering beat, a cheating husband struggles to figure out where he actually stands with his paramour: “Don’t fix me with that deadly gaze/It’s a little close to pity,” he chokes out. And in “My Most Beautiful Mistake,” a duet with Nicole Atkins, a screenwriter in a diner tells the waitress about envisioning her in movie scenes; she’s skeptical. “I’ve seen your kind before,” she observes, “in courtroom sketches.”
While the lyrics are convoluted, the music simply charges ahead. Like so many pandemic albums, “The Boy Named If” was pieced together remotely. Costello, on guitar, worked together with the drummer Pete Thomas; then he and the co-producer Sebastian Krys layered on parts by Davey Faragher on bass and Steve Nieve on keyboards.
Yet the Imposters sound gleefully, brutally unified, every bit as bristling as the Attractions on “This Year’s Model” or the Imposters on “When I Was Cruel” in 2002. “Farewell, OK” opens the album with Costello shouting through a distorted rockabilly boogie. “Death of Magic Thinking” meshes a pummeling march with a Bo Diddley beat and multiple jabbing, scrabbling guitars, steamrollering through a skewed chord progression and a tale of adolescent bewilderment.
“The Difference” — based, Costello has revealed, on the bleak love story in Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2018 film “Cold War” — has Costello’s guitars and Nieve’s organ tossing bits of dissonance back and forth in the verses, then veers into a poppy major-key chorus that asks, “Do you by chance know wrong from right?”
Over more than 30 studio albums, Costello has regularly tested himself against new genres and new collaborators: classical, country, R&B, hip-hop, jazz. But some of his strongest albums, like this one, have been his reunions with the Attractions/Imposters. Inevitably, there are echoes of Costello’s past on the new album.
“Magnificent Hurt” harks back to the pounding garage-rock and nagging organ of old Costello songs like “Pump It Up.” But the guitar solos are untamed, and there’s a smart Costello twist in the chorus, using just a pause: “It’s the way you make me feel magnificent/Hurt.” With Costello and the Imposters, familiarity breeds audacity, not routine. Some youthful pleasures weren’t illusions at all.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters
“The Boy Named If”