“I want you, I’m going to say it once again ’til I instill it / I am goin’, goin’ feel this way until you kill it.” Elvis Costello sang these relentless lines in 1986. He was younger then, and some of us were younger still. Yes, he sounded like a stalker, but for many of us that was our kind of fun. Costello, now 67, is presumably happily married (to chanteuse Diana Krall) and domesticated, but his muse still brims with bitterness and bile. And while he may have accepted an O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), his songs sound miles from Buckingham Palace.
On his new The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories), 32 albums into the game, Costello explains the title: “If is a nickname for your imaginary friend; your secret self, the one who knows everything you deny, the one you blame for the shattered crockery and the hearts you break, even your own.” It is his most straightforward rock ’n’ roll album in a long time, maybe since This Year’s Model, which opened with “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch / I don’t wanna see you ’cause I don’t miss you that much.” That was 1978, and he sounds like he’s not over it. If you have unfinished business with anyone, especially yourself, listening to the latest Elvis Costello is a way of checking in with your ex-lovers, ex-friends, abandoned self.
No matter how old he gets, the angry young man rages for us all. You may age and mellow. You may be content with what you have. Not this boy. “Drums begin to navigate, the band strikes up a riff / No one will believe you but the boy named If.” If is contingent. If is not done. If is our secret histories, unfinished business, unquenchable desires. It has been a little more than a year since Costello’s last album, and he has not stopped for a breath.
When I talked to Costello a couple of years ago, he told me that it was impossible to keep the bile running forever. “When I come upon it, I come upon it like an actor who has to play a role. You can’t keep slicing yourself open.” And yet, everywhere you turn, he keeps slicing. Even his quips have consequences. In “Trick Out the Truth,” Myrna Loy, Mussolini, and the Marx Brothers show up, all the way to “wrestling in the parlor playing cards with Gustav Mahler.”
Costello has played his hand in many genres, but rock ’n’ roll still breaks his heart. “I know this world is killing you,” he sang on his 1977 debut. All these years later, it’s still killing us. Costello will show us what we really want, what we really feel, who we really are. That voice has been delivering our pleasure and pain for a long time, and he still won’t let up. His indignant muse runneth over. In “Magnificent Hurt”—driven by a groove slightly resembling the theme to Batman—the pain is inextricable from the pleasure.
After talking in tongues, I began to preach
What falls from the branch is an apple or peach
Hold on to me, there’s a red alert
It’s the way you make me feel, magnificent hurt
Bon appétit. —David Yaffe
The Boy Named If, by Elvis Costello, is out now
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell