The cover of Elvis Costello's 1977 debut LP My Aim is True featured the artist in a viciously nerdy pose, with the words "Elvis is King" stenciled repeatedly across the cover.
On this year's King of America, it seemed that rock's favorite Angry Young Man had come full circle. The high school nerd was replaced by a bearded insomniac in a cheesy crown. Royal aspirations were underlined in the album's title and Costello recorded without the Attractions for the first time since his debut. The guitar-based sound evoked his landmark work, mixing blues, rockabilly and quiet ballads.
If Costello is indeed re-inventing the wheel, then his latest work ought to be similar to music he recorded immediately after My Aim is True — music that was noteworthy for its brash but polished sound, youthful anger and Costello's distinctive vocal style.
Blood and Chocolate, Costello's 13th album, partially supports this theory. Fans of This Year's Model, Costello's second LP, certainly won't be disappointed. Blood and Chocolate reunites Costello both with the Attractions and early producer Nick Lowe. The adrenaline charge of This Year's Model appears on cuts like "I Hope You're Happy Now" and "Tokyo Storm Warning."
Thematically both albums are virulently anti-female. In Blood and Chocolate's "Are You Straight or Are You Blind," Costello explores the dilemma of the "other woman" with a decidedly modern twist. And "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," takes a terribly grim view of love: "Here comes Mr. Misery / He'll never be any good with a mouthful of gold and blood / He's contemplating murder again / He must be in love."
It's clear that marriage and remarriage haven't softened the old boy on his rather jaundiced view of womankind. Women, to Costello, are creatures put on this earth to torture men and lead them to their inevitable downfall. This theme has appeared in his work before, though it hasn't been quite this biting for some time.
On Blood and Chocolate. Costello uses the figure of Napoleon as the Great Doomed Man. The album cover sports a painting called "Napoleon Dynamite" and Costello's picture shares that name. Perhaps Napoleon represents the self-inflated images men have of themselves — images that leave them vulnerable to attack by the fairer sex.
On "Poor Napoleon," Costello sings: "I bet she isn't all that's advertised / I bet that isn't all she fakes / Just like that place where they take your spine / And turn it into soap flakes."
Certain cuts, though, are notable for their departure from standard Costello fare. "I Want You." pares the instrumentation down to bass and acoustic guitar and creates an eerie mood of romantic obsession — like those movies where a deranged wacko covers his walls with photos of some idealized female.
"Tokyo Storm Warning," the album's first single and by far its most ambitious cut, was co-written with The Pogues' Cait O'Riordan, Costello's second wife, and describes the violent clash of viewpoints erupting from their union.
Blood and Chocolate's sound, however. isn't so easy to pin down. Vocally. Costello is in poor form. abandoning the croon he developed on Imperial Bedroom in favor of his earlier wail. This is coupled with a '60s garage recording style to create a muddiness highly in contrast to the crisp production normally associated with a Costello album.
The Attractions bear the brunt of the poor production. Steve Nieve's keyboards are the most tragic victim, washed over by the buzzy guitar and dull bass. The orchestration is thin and uninteresting, making it seem as though E.C. had deadline pressures breathing down his neck.
The accompanying tour, it's worth noting, seems to be designed to promote King of America as much as the new album. Costello plays three separate shows: the first with T. Bone Burnett's band, the Confederates, featuring songs from King of America. Costello teams with the Attractions the following night. playing selections from a spinning musical songbook. The final night features Costello and the Attractions performing material from Blood and Chocolate.
It's unfortunate that his latest album isn't as innovative as the forthcoming tour. Maybe someday Costello will find a sound he can live with, and take time to polish the details enough to make it come alive.