It's been only six months since Elvis Costello released King of America, but the prolific king of intelligent rock is already back with a new album. Blood and Chocolate, his new 11-song creation, features the Attractions (his regular backup band) and a rough sound that hasn't been heard from Costello since 1980's Get Happy. Nick Lowe's muddy production serves as a mixed blessing on the new songs.
Blood and Chocolate comes out at a time when many longtime Elvis fans have been expressing dissatisfaction with his recent musical direction. King of America was dominated by quiet country-influenced rock, and the powerful Attractions showed up on only one of the LP's fifteen songs. As if to placate the fans and the Attractions alike, Costello has slapped together a new collection of emotional, rough-edged numbers with his original band.
The album opens up with the appropriately titled "Uncomplicated," a throwaway number which suffers from lack of melody, beat, and performance quality. "Uncomplicated" sums up the overall problems of Blood and Chocolate — the vocals are too dominant, the mix is muddy, and the guitar and keyboard work are underdeveloped.
Fortunately, things pick up on "I Hope You're Happy Now," a piece of vintage Costello resentfulness and sarcastic wit. In his best "sour grapes" tradition, Costello virtually screams lines like "You make him sound like frozen food / His love will last forever." The music is catchy and energetic, and the playing recalls the tightness that the Attractions displayed on earlier albums. This song will be released as a single as soon as the droning six-minute "Tokyo Storm Warning" (which follows on the album) falls off the charts.
The first side is rounded out by two songs with real potential which are unfortunately marred by poor arrangement and mixing. "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" features scathing lyrics concerning a suicidal alcoholic businessman who hasn't fared well in the pursuit of love. The song is sung with incredible conviction, and the harmonized background vocals flesh out the sparse instrumental arrangement.
The final song on the first side is "I Want You," a curiosity loosely modeled on the Beatles' song of the same name. The song almost approaches the sound of a religious meditation, as one out of every three lines is "I want you." The lyrical weirdness is augmented by bizarre acoustics, minimal instrumentation, and Costello's vocals at the end of the song; he sounds like he's singing from his deathbed. "I Want You" is certainly one of the album's standouts simply because Costello never recorded a song quite like it.
Side two is less of a challenge to listen to, opening with "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?," a simple rocker which is apparently about the tribulations of having a bisexual girlfriend. It's played in the best sloppy fifties style, and in this context, the "muddy" sound of the Attractions actually works well in the song.
"Blue Chair" is arguably the best song on the album, benefiting from its precision — it's played accurately, it sounds good, and it "feels" like more time was spent composing it than most other work on Blood and Chocolate. "Battered Old Bird" is a standard Costello working-class soap opera in the grand tradition of earlier songs like "Little Palaces," "Shipbuilding," and "Long Honeymoon." What separates "Battered Old Bird" from the older compositions are the passionate vocals — Costello sings as if the song's beleaguered protagonist is a close friend.
Elvis is in top pop form in "Crimes of Paris," which features backing vocals by fiancee Cait O'Riordan. O'Riordan's harmonies don't really mesh with Costello's vocals, but the hummable melody keeps the tune moving. The appearance of a female voice on an Elvis Costello record undermines his credibility in the songs which cast himself as a loser. It's hard to take Costello seriously when he sings "As I stepped out upon the landing, my heart was already down the stairs / She's in the bedroom with that boy of hers" in "Next Time Round," the album's last song, when Cait has been chiming in on the two previous songs.
Perhaps Costello is anticipating the artistic slump that accompanies marriage by casting himself in frustrated roles for his songs. If so, he's doing a good job lyrically — the word play is impressive as usual, and his subject matter is conveyed convincingly.
But if the album's lyrics satisfy expectations based on his previous work, then the musicianship of Blood and Chocolate must be recognized as its severe shortcoming. Some of the songs are as good as any that Costello has ever written, but the precision of the Attractions is at an all-time low on this album. Costello hasn't let Steve Nieve develop his usual ingenious keyboard parts, nor has he allowed Bruce Thomas's bass work to stand out as it once did. The tight sound and punchy energy of albums like Trust and This Year's Model is sorely lacking on Blood and Chocolate, and as such, the new album cannot rank with the other albums as one of his best.