switched on pop

Elvis Costello’s Aim Remains True, 32 Albums In

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Elvis Costello burst onto the music scene in 1977 with the album My Aim Is True and songs like “Alison” that established him as a powerful new voice in rock. From then on he released album after album, decade after decade, becoming a pop-music institution. Now, Costello has released his 32nd studio album, The Boy Named If, a kaleidoscopic journey through many of the sounds and styles that he and his band, the Imposters — Steve Nieve on organ, Davey Faragher on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums — have experimented with over the years.

The album’s title track showcases slow-burning tension through lush arrangements. Also present are moving ballads (“Paint the Red Rose Blue”) and plenty of references to classic rock and roll, as on “The Death of Magic Thinking,” which channels a timeless Bo Diddley beat in its pounding rhythm. Switched on Pop’s Nate Sloan spoke with Elvis Costello about his open-minded style and open-ended lyrics, his much-publicized defense of Olivia Rodrigo, and why he turned down working with Adele.

Nate Sloan: One of my favorite moments on your new record comes in the song “Magnificent Hurt.” You play a guitar solo that is so dissonant and raw, it adds a layer of depth and complexity to an already rich song.
Elvis Costello: That’s a good example of putting your fingers anywhere and making it work. How could you have a song called “Magnificent Hurt” and play a beautiful, melodic solo? It wouldn’t make sense. I don’t often take solos. There’s two on this record, which is actually two more than almost every other record I’ve made. Certainly I haven’t played a solo in 20 years on a record. I don’t really think of myself as an expressive guitar player. But this one is descriptive, right?

This approach of just keeping your ears open can be liberating and lead you to a whole new form. The territorial nature of it can be very odd, when people will say, “I’ve invented this thing that’s never been imagined!” Well, that depends on how much music you’ve listened to, because to me, I’ve heard it lots of times.

Speaking of the “territorial” nature of modern music, when Olivia Rodrigo released her album Sour and the track “Brutal” in 2021, many listeners commented on a perceived similarity between that song and “Pump It Up” from 1978’s This Year’s Model. You responded with a sentiment very much in keeping with what you’ve just been describing.
I don’t often get involved in dialogue online, but this sort of took me by surprise. I had heard Olivia Rodrigo’s first single [“Driver’s License”] and I’d seen her perform on some television show and it sounded like she was telling a real story that happened, and it was really good. She had a lot of presence. I was perhaps curious to hear what was next, and what was next was the album. And then I started to see my name, which was unexpected.

So when I saw this letter from this young man who was indignant on my behalf, I wrote to him personally and I said, “This is fine with me, Billy. This is how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make it a brand-new toy. That’s what I did.”

For me to take issue with Olivia Rodrigo floating some lines over a rhythm which is shared in a whole bunch of songs before and since would just be idiotic.

Your songs have had a remarkable longevity in our culture. Would you work with a younger artist like Adele? 
I don’t know whether she knew about it, but a long, long time ago, I was approached by a music publisher to consider entering into collaboration with an artist who had made a record as a teenager and was just trying to make her second record and they thought it would be a good idea if I collaborated on it.

My honest response was that it felt wrong for me, in my late 50s, getting involved with trying to imagine what the reality was for a person who was 20. There’s a difference between me relating on The Boy Named If what I remember — what I see, what I held in my heart, what I learned from the next experience in my life, and in the life of all the people I love, and people I’ve shared time with — with somebody I had never even met. It would be hugely presumptuous. And that’s how I didn’t manage to write any of Adele’s record.

Now, of course, you know, if I had ever told my publisher that that was happening, they would have had me taken out and shot.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Elvis Costello’s Aim Remains True, 32 Albums In