What about rock musicians and children’s books? These days, it seems like every other songwriter or band is releasing some kind of storybook-themed concept album. The most recent X Ambassadors LP, The beautiful liar, formulated his rather bland breakup songs in a half-baked audiobook for kids. Then last November, Jet frontman Nic Cester released his solo album The girl who jumps and an accompanying children’s book. And now we have the pillar of the new wave Elvis costello, including the latest version, The boy named if, is ostensibly maintained by — you guessed it — a children’s book concept.
According to Capitol Records, the album will be available in standard formats as well as an “88-page hardcover storybook edition,” which will include 13 illustrated stories named after the songs.
Costello enthusiasts with the extra cash can splurge on the Special Edition if they choose. However, the album itself should satisfy enthusiasts and average listeners alike, even if they can’t quite keep up with the putative storyline.
It’s because The boy named if Has featured Costello’s stock for nearly half a century: impeccably crafted melodies, tangy lyrics, and vocals that mix punk venom with classic crooner elegance. Not only that, he and his support group The Imposters attack the dozen bakers with such a direct focus that they are reminiscent of the days of This year’s model and Armed forces.
The album opens with “Farewell, Ok”, a garage-rock rave-up that finds Elvis Costello playing a familiar role: a rejected lover who rants against the person who hurt him. He bellows lines like “I thought you would change / And get a little humble” with such pain and bitterness that you could almost forget he’s (hopefully) married and raising two teenage boys. Meanwhile, Pete Thomas’ nimble drums keep the song moving while Steve Nieve’s organ gives it a carnival feel.
Next is the title track, which features a larger than life trickster who can fall off tightropes and cliffs and live to do nonsense another day. The bridge’s invitation to visit “Magic Lantern Land” conjures up fairy tales, but the music’s swagger is reminiscent of characters like Mannish Boy from Muddy Waters or Little Red Rooster by Willie Dixon. Costello chuckles through the song as if savoring every nasty syllable.
The third track, “Penelope Halfpenny”, evokes a female counterpart to The boy named if. Costello’s sweet organ and two vocals may sound a bit too arched or cutesy, but Davey Faragher’s nimble drums and rubbery bass provide a bit of muscle. Venom returns to the forefront with the offbeat, singing “The Distance,” which sides with a woman in a bad romance and throws in hints of incest and parricide for good measure.
On “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” Costello moans about the end of an extramarital affair as his guitar crackles and screams and the beat continues unabated. The plaintive “Paint the Red Rose Blue” conducted at the piano casts a look full of pity but critical on a man whose selfishness poisons his relationship with the woman he loves. The pain in Costello’s voice suggests he knows all too well how toxic guys can mess up good things.
“Mistook Me for a Friend” lightens the mood with its pounding beat and cheerful organ line until you pay attention to lines such as “I’m wearing velvet gloves because the blood runs down your hands. “. The tight R&B tune “My Most Beautiful Mistake” describes a woman the narrator can’t help but admire for seeing through him. On the surf-tinged “Magnificent Hurt”, Elvis Costello celebrates the pleasure in the pain of lust on Nieve’s eerie organ and his own screaming guitar.
The “The Man You Love To Hate” might describe what happens to the boy named If once his chickens come home to roost. “Death of Magic Thinking” finds Costello once again picking up the pieces after a relationship dies. The lyrics can be read depressed, but the lively Latin rhythm suggests that life goes on.
The singing and spooky “Trick Out the Truth” lists the monsters from Godzilla to Mussolini that await anyone who seeks meaning in this life. The boy named if ends with the melancholy tale of the false nursery “Mr. Crescent”, which describes a down-and-out ne’er doing well whose bad deeds leave him all alone. In concluding with this song, Costello seems to imply that the world might not be playing fair, but you still have to follow the line. It is a good lesson for the children. For adults too.
Follow reporter Ben Shultz on Instagram.com/benjamin.schultz1.