Declan MacManus, alias Elvis Costello, is experimenting again.
MacManus' newest, Blood and Chocolate, is his eleventh album and his second release this year. King of America, which was released last spring, featured a new Costello — the old Costello. On King of America, Costello was striving to get back to the roots, the soul, the honesty. He went as far as changing his name back to his given name, and further wiped the slate clean by separating himself from his long-time back-up band, the Attractions.
The Attractions ended up playing with him on only one track of King of America, but they are backing MacManus again on all of Blood and Chocolate. It is an ambitious album, and in keeping with King of America in its lyrical and musical content. It is honest, simple, and not altogether polished.
The lyrics on Blood and Chocolate are more autobiographical than anything MacManus has ever released even as Costello. One could speculate that several lines were inspired by and/or aimed at his ex-wife, for instance, the entire song "I Hope You're Happy Now." By no means does the autobiographical nature of the lyrics make them bad, but such close-to-home subjects make focus hard for any writer to hold on to.
There are, of course, many good lines — as on all of MacManus' albums. "They say the gold paint on the palace gates comes from the teeth of pensioners." "You can take the truthful things you've said to me and fit them on the head of a pin." "He's contemplating murder again, he must be in love." "You put a penny in the slot. She called you her Magic Fingers." "But you make him sound like frozen food, his love will last forever."
But of all the good lyrical ideas, only four cuts of Blood and Chocolate stand on their own — lyrically and musically. "I Hope You're Happy Now," keeps focus and runs sardonically through a smooth pop melody. "Tokyo Storm Warning" sounds like a "Pump it up" variation pumped full of "Subterranean Homesick Blues"-ish lyrics. "Crimes of Paris" is a bittersweet, give-and-take love song, on which MacManus is accompanied by his wife, Cait O'Riordan, lead singer of the Pogues. And "Poor Napoleon," the strongest cut on the album, focuses on one who sets himself up for pompous, tragic love. On the song, MacManus is accompanied only by O'Riordan, a bass and a tambourine. "Poor Napoleon" is simply executed, lyrically cutting, and more focused and polished than any other cut on the album.
Musically MacManus is going back to music with a lot of soul, but sometimes the experimenting gets in the way. There are several simple cuts, in which the music takes the backseat, but unfortunately, so does the aim of the song. In the powerful cut "I Want You," MacManus starts out with a musical and lyrical facsimile of Elvis Presley's "Love me tender," and then gets lost in a mess of redundant lyrics and chords. "Uncomplicated," the first song on the album, epitomizes MacManus' losing his aim in experimentation.
As was seen on King of America, MacManus is trying to "find himself" by dropping the Elvis Costello thing. He has dropped a lot of the complicated lyrics, dubbing, melodies, and struck out to find his heart. In Blood and Chocolate, he seems to be over the trauma and is experimenting and having fun again. The inside lyric sheet is spiced up with quips of Esperanto, and MacManus dubs himself even anther identity, "Napoleon Dynamite."
Blood and Chocolate could not be a more honest album, but it needs more thought on focus and technique. The ambition to the end is there — as always — but the experimental means do not arrive at the destination. And it just leaves me wondering where MacManus is going next.