"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a strange thing to want to do." Elvis Costello, Musician Magazine, 1983.
You wanna talk strange? "Japanese God-Jesus robots telling teenage fortunes / For all we know and all we care, they might as well be Martians." Now that's strange.
It's from "Tokyo Storm Warning," one of the more inscrutable songs on Costello's 13th (or so) album, Blood and Chocolate. As you can tell, his lyrics are as cryptic as ever.
But what's Elvis sounding like these days? Well, like the Elvis Costello of old, the one who sang "I want to bite the hand that feeds me" so convincingly on "Radio, Radio" in 1978.
Blood and Chocolate is a return to the simpler, meaner sound of Costello's first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. Gone are the ornate horn and string arrangements of the landmark Imperial Bedroom.
In their place is the bold, ringing stand of electric guitar, introduced on the LP's first cut, "Uncomplicated." It's a nasty, jarring number, punctuated by the reedy organ-playing of Steve Nieve. The one-chord verse reinforces the simplicity of the chorus: "It's in your eyes / Uncomplicated."
Next is "I Hope You're Happy Now." The story of this song is revealed in the songwriting credit, which is given to "Costello," while the rest of the songs are credited to "MacManus," Costello's real (and more recently used) name.
"I Hope You're Happy Now" recalls Elvis's Armed Forces period, with a bouncy bass line and frantic chord changes.
The heavy stuff kicks in with "Tokyo Storm Warning," a world tour of injustices, from the K.K.K. to chemical refineries and everything in-between. "Tokyo Storm Warning" seems to be the real "message" song on the album, a stream of consciousness of socio-political commentary, while the rest of the album deals more with love (and lust) relationships.
"Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" is an example — the sad story of "Mr. Misery," a long-suffering victim of you've-been-dumped-itis: "Here comes Mr. Misery / He's tearing out his hair again / He's crying over her again / He's standing in the supermarket / Shouting at the customers / He must be in love."
Unlike "Tokyo Storm Warning," "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" features lyrics the average Joe can understand on the first pass, a refreshing change for Elvis.
The same is true for "I Want You," a haunting, almost psychotic confession of obsessive love. It's vaguely reminiscent of the Beatles song of the same name, with the title repeated and expanded upon to its chilling ending.
Side Two returns to inscrutability, starting with "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind," which could be about Ray Charles, but I doubt it. Never mind the subject, it's got a great back beat.
Next is one of the album's highlights. "Blue Chair." It's a nifty pop song, with a typically clever Elvis Costello chorus: "Now it's my turn to talk / And you turn to think / Your turn to buy / And my turn to drink / Your turn to cry / And my turn to sink / Down in the blue chair."
"Battered Old Bird" is really a strange one, a powerful and oddly beautifully glimpse of a home shattered by the long-overdue return of an absent husband.
"Crimes of Paris" and "Poor Napoleon" both feature backing vocals, minimal though they are, from The Pogues' Cait O'Riordan, who happens to be Elvis's fiancee. "Crimes of Paris" is a charming ditty, recalling the simplicity of the Trust album. "Poor Napoleon" uses Lowe's creative production abilities in a unique but not entirely successful way.
"Next Time Round" closes Blood and Chocolate with a cross between a whimper and bang. It's a semi-rousing number that never quite reaches lb peak. Maybe it's a sly teaser to buy the next album.
With the speed at which Costello works, that next effort should be out any day now. And if Blood and Chocolate is an indication of where he's going, it should be a great one.