8 things about Elvis Costello’s The Boy Named If

A clearly inspiring lyric concept for the songwriter + strong vocals and muscular work from The Impostors. When I Was Cruel might’ve had a higher high, but The Boy Named If strikes me as the most consistently enjoyable Elvis Costello of the century. Let’s hit the list …

1The title track. After the “Farewell OK” opener – where he says goodbye as we say hello via a more amplified “Don’t Think Twice” with hints of ’50s stylings – the splotches of fuzzy bass and prickly acoustic guitars herald “The Boy Named If”.

Echoes of Imperial Bedroom and Spike wait further inside. As does an ascending bit that you will wish appeared at least one more time.

It’s a very satisfying stomp.

Signatures, Segues & Sustain

2 – The way that sideways electric fills turn a corner into pop chorus territory on “The Difference”.

The track includes the most extreme example of comeuppance on the album. That said, “Do you by chance know wrong from right? Do you know what turns pleasure to blight?” touches on themes of deterioration and fleeting opportunity that run through the set.

3 – Speaking of the ravages of time and the doubt it invites, “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” brings swagger in ¾ time, a deliciously dirty Wurlitzer, and tough, insistent electric guitar lines. Strong vocals and a gnarly guitar break.

4 – On the other end of the sonic spectrum, the sound of sustain pedal mechanics working under a final chord reinforces an intimacy at the end of “Paint The Red Rose Blue”. The song strikes me as skirting around and through grief, artfully drawn with gentle melody, the album’s first moment to catch its breath.

The pedal depress/release fits all the more as a production choice. You can press that pedal as hard as you like, but pretty as any chord has been, it decays.

Mid-Album Imagery

5 “He made a portrait of her face out of burnt-out matches” … impermanence, beauty, and more fateful passer-by content in the moviemaking-themed “My Most Beautiful Mistake”. Followed by A mohair suit and complete lack of regret in the bridge of “Magnificent Hurt”, a few minutes of gratitude for “the pain that I felt [that] let me know I’m alive.” Hey, it takes all kinds.

Longer Lines & Womanish Wordplay

Helen per Antonio Canova’s bust. Photo Yair Haklai (CC S-A 3.0).

6 – The way Costello, Faragher, Nieve, and Thomas establish a tom-tom heavy, This Year’s Modelesque mood toward the start of “The Death Of Magic Thinking”, only for Costello to lob longer grappling hooks of vocal lines up above the intensity. The contrast works.

Lost prime rears its head again here (“Cartwheels you used to turn …).  And who hasn’t gotten through the last couple of years without a touch of “I can’t stand on my head / I can’t let go my tears / I can’t control my anger / I can’t control my fears.”

7“Just like Helen (late of Troy) / The Mynah bird, the Myrna Loy” – lovely generation-spanning, famous-femme wordplay in the set piece, “Trick Out The Truth”.

Debonair vocal, tiptoeing Nieve organ, and a bonfire “haunted by the orphans heard but never seen, on Halloween” make this the easiest track to imagine as a Tom Waits number.

You Can Rock Around The Clock, But You Can’t Turn Back Its Hands

8 – The tremolo guitar returns with gauzy ’50s-style triplet piano chords to wind up “Mr. Crescent” and The Boy Named If.

The male Crescent, looking for some sugar. (Photo Soerfm, CC 4.0)

The tremolo is a stylistic call-back to the first track’s guitar and to the decade where an imaginary friend/witness/confidante would have first sprouted alongside a boy right around Declan McManus’s age.

Our character here (named for the nectar-eating bird) remains a bit of a playboy but knows he is fairly far down the trail now.

Another rendezvous completed, he’s unexpectedly alone (there’s that fleeting thing again) as his partner seems to have sized him up at last. In our final scene, Mr. Crescent is left to “wonder where my Honey has gone …” as the needle hits the runout groove.

Ain’t it funny how time slips away?

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