If you were a fan of Elvis Costello's late-'70s albums, from My Aim Is True through Armed Forces, the new Blood and Chocolate is the LP you've been waiting seven years for him to deliver.
In those early collections, the Englishman established himself as one of rock's most compelling songwriters: His clever, seductive wordplay would have caught the ear of Cole Porter, and his sharp-witted bite might even cause Bob Dylan to think twice about getting into a verbal showdown with him.
But Costello stumbled in slight, subtle ways after Armed Forces. While continuing to do frequently excellent work, he tended to put out so many albums and move in so many different directions that even his most loyal fans were sometimes puzzled or exasperated.
That is why Blood and Chocolate is such cause for celebration. It steps forward with the same consistency, passion, intensity and unbridled arrogance as Armed Forces.
After bulldozing his way into the Top 10 with Armed Forces, Costello began a series of odd career twists — all in the name of artistic independence. That is a phrase you have to be wary of in pop music. It can be a badge of honor or a cop-out.
It is not that Costello hasn't written gripping songs since Armed Forces, but nothing has exhibited the sheer rock 'n' roll passion of that LP. With absolute confidence — even arrogance — it reached out to a broad audience with a fury and vision that simply demanded to be heard. Few albums have ever defined the flame of rock as well.
One of the album's most absorbing moments, "Tokyo Storm Warning," is an intoxicating series of contrasting images that invite, or possibly defy, the listener to find order and balance among the confusion and chaos.
Even the album's title underscores the way things are often far different from their appearances: In some settings, blood and chocolate look the same.
The music in the album returns in places to the captivating and confident, organ-and-guitar-accented swirl of Armed Forces. Yet it also includes softer, though hardly less intense, acoustic passages.
One of the album's central themes is man's capacity to endure. There are people and situations in Blood and Chocolate as dark, despairing and hopeless as those in Springsteen's Nebraska. Still, life goes on.
The real horror, Costello suggests, is in not facing the truth.
At one point, he declares: "The truth can't hurt you — It's just like the dark — It scares you witless — But in time you see things clear and stark."
The Blood and Chocolate album title may not tell us much about Costello's attitude these days, but there is plenty of exposition in the songs themselves. In fact, Costello's artistic pulse is so alive again that the appropriate subtitle may be "Welcome Back."