On album number 32 The Boy Named If Elvis Costello and his Imposters come rocketing out of gate with a manic ferocity. Opening cut “Farewell, OK” kinda sounds like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” if Lennon and McCartney had been in the Clash. The message is clear: fans impatient for Costello to return to his This Year’s Model roots, the wait is over. Elvis may be 67 years old but he’s not too old to rock and roll. And lay on all his usual clever lyrical and melodic turns too.
Now when I say this record marks a return to This Year’s Model that’s only part of what’s going on. Drummer Pete Thomas is playing on the original kit from that record and you can definitely hear it at the start of tracks like “Penelope Halfpenny” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” But the songs simply refuse to be limited to influences from just one album. “Penelope Halfpenny” is really the lyrical and melodic cousin of “Veronica” from Costello’s 1989 Warner Brothers debut Spike, though the organ riffs would be right at home on Armed Forces. “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” also balances This Year’s Model drumming with an Armed Forces melodic vibe. At times it’s the sound and combination of instruments that harkens back to a particular time. “Magnificent Hurt” aces the early records formula of distinctive bass and organ runs. “Mistook Me For A Friend” and “The Man You Love To Hate” echo the gripping tension that the Attractions could sustain on a variety of cuts from the first few albums. Then again “My Most Beautiful Mistake” reminds me of the pop soul sound EC worked up on his mid-period release Mighty Like a Rose.
And then there’s the ballads. “Paint the Red Rose Blue” is that exquisitely mannered song style Elvis really got into from Trust onwards that pops up again and again over the rest of his career. I sometimes think he must crank a few of these out every day before breakfast, so effortlessly do they flow across his many releases. You want it darker? Both “Trick Out the Truth” and “Mr. Crescent” are those seemingly nice EC ballads that hint at a deeper menace the longer you keep listening to them. But the highlight on this album for me is “The Difference” with its keyboard dominated chorus. I’ve always had a soft spot for Goodbye Cruel World and the mix of elements here really remind of where Costello landed on that record.
Rock and roll Elvis is back. Though, in fairness, he never really went away. What nostalgic fans often want is a return to Elvis circa 1979, all snarl, pounding drums and relentless organ riffs. Well EC has seldom been keen to simply stand still creatively or retread old ground. He’s constantly pushed the limits of his rock and roll horizons. But on The Boy Named If Costello indulges the yearning for past glory, sprinkling hints of musical yesteryear all over the album. And the result, far from a retread, is a distinctively new Elvis synthesis.
Elvis Costello lives online here, at least some of the time.