Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

That of Elvis Costello The boy named If start with no submission or marches. A sounding guitar riff sounds like a siren, then his main voice kicks in. “Goodbye, OK / You’ll be on your way,” Costello cried, fueling his new album with a quick goodbye. It’s the musical equivalent of a rug being pulled out from under our feet, a sudden plunge into a world of whimsical tunes and enigmatic verses.

Costello likes to trade in opposites. The habit began early, a temperamental sign of young Declan MacManus’ mixed British Protestant-Irish Catholic family background. Born again as Elvis Costello in year zero of punk rock, he had a non-punk love for older musical forms, from 1970s pub rock to the standards played by his father Ross MacManus, a great orchestra musician.

Juxtapositions runs through Costello’s musicianship, beginning with the doubled perspective of his first hit, 1977’s “Watching the Detectives”. Seductive melodies go along with sour lyrics. A taste for neatly composed songs is combined with unlimited musical wanderlust. Over the course of about three dozen studio albums, the 67-year-old has alternated between country, jazz, hip-hop, classical music and orchestral pop. He has been criticized for his eclecticism, but the itching remains unabated. “What is it that I need that I do not already have?” asked for a song on his latest album with new material, 2020s Hey Watch.

The boy named If follows a usually busy period of activity. Last year, Costello released Spanish model, a Spanish version of his 1978 album This year’s model, sung by gas singers; and called a French EP The cuckoo clock, with turns from Isabelle Adjani and Iggy Pop. His 13 new songs are released with a hardcover book containing 13 additional short stories with illustrations. The effect is typical – but the album itself is sharp and driven, a concise return to the attacking style of its earlier days.

At Costello is his usual background group, The Imposters. Steve Nieve’s keyboards slide and swirl through songs like dodgems, drummer Pete Thomas clatters his kit with devotion and bassist Davey Faragher provides the rhythmic glue. Costello sounds refreshed at the microphone, and barks out lyrics with impressive vim.

“Farewell, OK” evokes an early Beatles song that was blown away with noisy energy in a Hamburg dive. “The Boy Named If” combines a bumpy beat with neat melodic pivots. “Mistook Me for a Friend” mixes a fiery Motown beat with 1960s organ leaks and power-pop choruses. “The Man You Love To Hate” has the noisy sound of a ska singalong in a beer cellar cabaret.

Album cover of 'The Boy Named If' by Elvis Costello and The Impostors

The songs are based on characters such as the footless protagonist of “Penelope Halfpenny” and the romantic villain portrayed in “Mr Crescent”. But The boy named If uses a different style of storytelling than his closest namesake, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”. Rather than Cash’s witty, twist-in-the-story narrative, Costello’s songs permeated surrealistic scenarios and puns with lively one-liners and ingenious rhyming couplets.

Stimulants lead to tearful afflictions in “Magnificent Hurt”; lies and threats make up for it in “Paint the Red Rose Blue”. Recurring themes – crime, music, movies, sex, religion, colors, the stage – were scattered throughout the songs like the pieces of a puzzle. The results are both compelling and cryptic. These busy, up-and-coming songs have secrets.

★★★★ ☆

The boy named If‘released by EMI

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