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Elvis Costello & the Imposters, "The Boy Named If" (Capitol)

During the pandemic, plenty of musicians have unveiled their quieter, scaled-down, more reflective sides. Costello, typically, had other ideas.

His 2020 album, "Hey Clockface," was a high-contrast miscellany. For "Spanish Model" in 2021, he gathered Spanish-speaking rockers to translate lyrics and replace his own vocals on the tracks from "This Year's Model," his fierce, punky 1978 album. On "The Boy Named If," Costello is rejoined by his perennial band the Imposters for songs that kick hard and deep. It's anything but quiet.

The deluxe version of "The Boy Named If" adds an 88-page book written and illustrated by Costello. Each song gets a prose vignette that — like the songs — are full of Costello's jumpy wordplay, and they involve lust, infidelity, violence, predation, betrayal, deception, self-deception and other grown-up pastimes.

The situations and wordplay are knotty; often, they crash youthful illusions into adult disillusion. The album's stomping title track posits a lucky, seductive, elusive imaginary friend, "the boy named If," who always escapes consequences. In "What if I Can't Give You Anything But Love?" a cheating husband struggles to figure out where he actually stands with his paramour.

While the lyrics are convoluted, the music simply charges ahead. "Farewell, OK" opens the album with Costello shouting through a distorted rockabilly boogie. "Death of Magic Thinking" meshes a pummeling march with a Bo Diddley beat and multiple jabbing, scrabbling guitars, steamrolling through a skewed chord progression and a tale of adolescent bewilderment.

Inevitably, there are echoes of his past. "Magnificent Hurt" harks back to the pounding garage-rock and nagging organ of old Costello songs like "Pump It Up." But the guitar solos are untamed, and there's a smart Costello twist in the chorus, using just a pause: "It's the way you make me feel magnificent. Hurt."

With Costello and the Imposters, familiarity breeds audacity, not routine. Some youthful pleasures weren't illusions at all.

JON PARELES, New York Times


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