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Elvis Costello still has his punk rocker cred

On his new album, the veteran rocker goes back to the sound of his classic years, and proves that his punkrocking credentials are still alive

Elvis Costello at the premiere of 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. Photo via AFP
Elvis Costello at the premiere of 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. Photo via AFP

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The first time I tried to explore the music of Elvis Costello it didn’t go well. Probably because of the album I chose to listen to. It was the early 2000s and Costello’s When I Was Cruel had just come out. It was the British rocker’s 19th album. I found the album off-kilter although noted critics had praised it. Costello, who is often classified as a New Wave musician, has had a propensity to experiment with different styles over the years—even now, at the age of 67.

The critics liked When I Was Cruel for the same reasons that I didn’t. Its eccentric tunes and sharp lyrics with wry humour appealed to them. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. Delving deeper into his back catalogue would have been a better strategy.

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That happened later. Curiously, though, it wasn’t a Costello tune that got me hooked to him. It was a song by one of my favourite bands, The Grateful Dead. On Deadicated, a tribute album to that band, I heard Costello do a version of the Dead’s Ship Of Fools. A bit of digging later, I realised that not only was he a Deadhead but that one of the reasons he took up the guitar and started a band in the 1970s was because he had fallen for their music after seeing them in concert in England.

That (and yes, I am biased) gave him the cred I needed and I began exploring Costello’s catalogue, beginning with his early pub-ready punk rock albums such as My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model. They were intense albums that introduced me to his vocal style—a little abrasive but also mercurial, for he is able to change his tone from being pleasingly upbeat to snarlingly angry, sometimes within the course of the same song. Going on to his later albums, I discovered how he changed, from bare-bones punk to more meticulously arranged soundscapes. I began to appreciate the talent behind his lyrics, witty and thoughtful, and his versatility when it came to exploring and creating more complex structures. On the early 1980s’ album Trust, Costello (he had a band by then, the Attractions, which would later transform into the Imposters) came across as a more eclectic musician than he had been in his earlier albums.

Costello has released 32 studio albums, the latest of which, The Boy Named If, came out in January. Coming more than 40 years after Costello began his career as a musician, it is just the right album to explore his music. Because The Boy Named If is like a dive into his past, showcasing the different generic twists and turns in his career.  When you begin listening to The Boy Named If, the quality of the sound impresses first.

Recorded during the pandemic, the album was put together remotely—Costello and his band members put together their parts separately before it was mixed. That doesn’t show, however. Costello and his quartet, the Imposters, sound as if they had all headed to a studio to record the 13 songs.

In recent years, Costello has been moving towards a jazzy idiom, creating quieter music that is different from the brand of rock he began with. On The Boy Named If, Costello has gone back to the sound of his earlier-era albums.

It’s a stomping rocker of an album. It seethes with an energy that recalls Costello’s classic phase. His band, the Imposters, sounds impressive and charged with adrenaline. The lyrics are quirky and there is a mood that seems to “look back”.

Quoted in Rolling Stone magazine, Costello says the songs “take us from the last days of a bewildered boyhood to that mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child—which for most men (and perhaps a few gals too) can be any time in the next 50 years.”

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The songs on the album range from the romantically tragic Magnificent Hurt to more hook-filled tunes such as Mistook Me For A Friend and to bluesy charged-up tracks such as the title track. What works best on The Boy Named If is Costello’s masterful songwriting.

The deluxe version of the album is also accompanied by a book of short stories, texts and illustrations by Costello that are related to, or have inspired, the songs. Like most of the albums in his lengthy catalogue, The Boy Named If deserves multiple listens. And like many of his earlier albums, every time you give it a spin it grows on you a bit more.

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