Most of us find growing up difficult, but it must be particularly hard for rock stars. Becoming an adult generally involves realising that the world does not revolve around you, but when you're a rock star the world does revolve around you, a small world at least, with audiences, backing musicians and road crew all there because you are. No wonder so many of them are such big babies.
Now Elvis Costello has addressed the situation with an album that "takes us from the last days of a bewildered childhood to that mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child, which for most men (and a few gals) can be any time in the next 50 years." It's a surprise nobody has done it sooner. Whatever Costello's other childlike tendencies, he does have the work ethic of a proper adult. Since Hey Clockface in 2000, which indulged his love of Seventies singer-songwriters with reflective songs about the nature of time, he has made a French-language version of the album called La Face de Pendule d Coucou then a Spanish-language version of his 1978 breakthrough, This Year's Model.
Now comes an album that, fittingly for its subject matter, returns to the raucous, rattling sound of Costello's early years in the late Seventies, where the rootsy traditionalism of pub rock met the spikiness of new wave and the raw thrill of the Sixties beat boom.
The result is songs such as "Penelope Halfpenny," driven by Steve Nieve's swirling Vox Continental organ and not a million miles away from Costello's unimpeachable classic "Pump It Up"; and "Farewell, OK," whose primeval drums and riotous riffs sound like something the Beatles might have screamed out in Hamburg's Star Club circa 1962.
The fact that the Beatles were barely out of their teens then and Costello is 67 pretty much proves his point about the challenge of growing up.
The Boy Named If is based on the idea of having an imaginary friend, Costello says, "The one you blame for the hearts you break, including your own." The title track is written from the perspective of this figment of the juvenile mind, threatening to disappear if you step on a crack in the pavement and promising to take you to "magic lantern land" if you keep believing in him.
Costello is grappling with the value of romantic thinking versus the realities of ageing, from the elderly couple dealing with bereavement on the country-soul ballad "Paint the Red Rose Blue" to the waitress dreaming of stardom — and getting a rude awakening — on the sophisticated "My Most Beautiful Mistake."
Costello has always weighed up nostalgia against realism. Even when he first emerged in the late Seventies as the bespectacled intellectual of punk, he was trying to bottle the lightning of the rock 'n' roll that excited him as a kid in the Sixties. All these years later, he is still trying to do it. With its irrepressible, rambunctious spirit, The Boy Named If is a fine argument for the benefits of staying forever young.