Elvis Costello Remains Assured & Diverse On ‘The Boy Named If’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

It’s hard to think of another musician as consistent as Elvis Costello. Given, that probably has more to do with his 45-year-old discography than it does the quality of each independent release, but regardless, he remains, unlike many musicians of his generation, an artist to watch. Only two other artists have been as prolific over that long of a period while still occasionally approaching the quality of their peak. Costello, like McCartney and Dylan has dependably released an album every couple of years and every decade or so, one or two of those albums is reliably a standout. The Boy Named If however, is not one of those standouts.

After 2013’s underrated collaboration with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost, Costello took five years (his longest gap so far) before releasing his next album, Look Now. That album was assured and meticulous, and one of Costello’s best efforts in years, but its follow-up 2020’s Hey Clockface was more of a mixed bag. Hey Clockface featured about four too many genre experiments that came off as overlong interludes and accentuated the duality of an album already recorded in two different studios. 

The Boy Named If, has a lot in common with Hey Clockface, whether it be the four noticeably weaker tracks or the similarly bloated 52-minute runtime. That means that first and foremost, all four of those tracks could be removed and the album would work a whole lot better; and that Costello is still struggling with how to pick an album opener, in this case, “Mistook Me for a Friend” should have been the obvious choice. Unlike Hey Clockface though, those four weaker tracks fail because they try to capture the older, noisier Costello and instead come off as clunky and indistinct, especially when surrounded by better, more updated rockers.

What does work about The Boy Named If, like any other Costello album, is the songwriting. In this case, he has accompanied deluxe vinyl versions of the album with an 88-page book of short stories and prose, written and illustrated by Costello and based on or in some cases inspiring the songs on the album. It’s a nice appendix that shines some nuance on the album’s weaker moments, but it’s frustrating to see an album’s packaging come together more cohesively than the album itself. Still, when The Boy Named If hits, and it mostly does, it gives us a Costello Halloween song and yet another track about a waitress who looks like an actress, two things that are not easy to pull off. Costello is still an artist to watch.

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