At first glance, there doesn't appear to be much that's new about Blood & Chocolate. Elvis Costello has his usual band (the Attractions) back after a one-album hiatus, he's working with his old producer (Nick Lowe) for the first time in a few albums and he's exploring his favorite theme (romantic notions that end up like exploding cigars). Yet this is the freshest lp the slightly-older Angry Young man has produced in awhile.
Reportedly tired of his Elvis Costello image, Declan Aloysius Patrick MacManus has all but removed his stage name from the new record. Most of the songs are attributed to MacManus, and the credits list "Napoleon Dynamite" on lead vocals and guitar. Yet the sound of the record itself is immediately identifiable as Elvis Costello, and would be recognizable even to a listener who hadn't heard a new EC disc since This Year's Model.
You could even call Blood & Chocolate a sequel to This Year's Model. Or Armed Forces, anyway. (Hell, if Boston can pick up where they left off after eight years, why can't Costello/ MacManus/Dynamite?) It's what could've been the next step in the evolution of the early Costello/Attractions style had the band not gone on detours like Get Happy! (my favorite EC/Attractions lp, by the way) or Imperial Bedroom.
I don't mean that Blood & Chocolate is a reactionary record, or am I saying that the record succeeds because Costello and Company have tucked themselves back into a cozy niche. What has happened is that time off has reinvigorated the keynote EC&TA sound of light-but-heavy-hitting rock and roll.
The band sounds charged up as they haven't in ages, and Costello's singing and writing have regained the fire that in recent forays has shot off more sparks than flames. It's almost 1977 all over again.
All of which is to the good, because Costello is back in familiar territory. Not that he's really ever left it: his specialty has always been heartbreak — what causes it and what happens afterward.
This isn't Top 40 heartache. It's lies, pettiness, vindictiveness, jealousy, all the nasty little emotions and motivations that keep falling across the course of True Romance. Maybe it's the story of people who can never figure out what they're supposed to do in these situations and thus doom themselves to the role of victim. Over and over again.
If Costello has lived through even a fraction of the shattered or stillborn relationships he details, he's either a masochist or the personification of Santayana's old saw about forgetting the past, Or perhaps he's a detective, investigating every aspect of failure in matters of the heart.
Or maybe — just maybe — he backtracks now and again on the well-worn path from Starry Gaze to Jaundiced Eye, as though he expects to find something he might have missed. Something that might give him an advantage in a subsequent venture. Or somebody who isn't going to disappoint him into immortalizing her with another acerbic ode.
All of this is speculation, of course. None but Declan MacManus can say how much autobiography is imbued in the grooves. But there's no denying that Elvis Costello's first two albums were angry.
You felt you were hearing a man whose frustration and thwarted expectations sloshed around inside him like curdled milk. He didn't much care if he was a Voice Of His Generation — these were his blues, and let others sing their own. He'd transmogrify the rancor into melodies and wit, then, as he sang, relive the snubs life and the fairer sex had given him, suffer the memories of doors slamming shut.
That anger has abated since then, to be replaced in part by a sense of acceptance (these are the rules of the game, and nothing can be done about it). And whether he intended it or not, Costello has become a spokesman of sorts, in spite of his refusal to deal in generalities. The specifics vary, but his walking hard-luck stories are everywhere. He groans, that we may empathize.
A strong measure of that good ol' bile has seeped into Blood & Chocolate (blood and chocolate both being trappings of the love game, if you give it some thought). The bile heightens all of the colors, so that each figure in Costello's candid snapshots stands out in stark and blemished detail.
We're given detail upon detail, image upon image, all in Costello's best sardonic form. There is never a feeling of surfeit, though; the searchlight leaves enough of the scene darkened so that some mystery remains.
Nobody's safe from the acidic pen on this lengthy (47 minutes) lp; everybody has clay soles (and souls), everybody's both manipulated and manipulator. Costello's personas may be heard protesting their sacred love to uncomprehending femmes fatale who have given themselves over to contemptible creeps, but these "good guys" invariably tarnish their halos by letting their own crassness slip into view.
"I Hope You're Happy Now," "I Want You," "Next Time 'Round" and "Poor Napoleon" show as little pity toward the objects of desire as toward those who desire. "Blue Chair" accords similarly gentle treatment to sorrow-drowning drinking buddies, but we shouldn't think Costello is cruel to them — they'll get over it.
There has always been scads of deadpan comedy in Costello's narratives of lovers falling all over one another, but here the man even sends up the cranky love-stinks perspective he has always maintained. The hair-tearing Mr. Misery ("he's contemplating murder again, / he must be in love") might be Elvis Costello himself — that is, it might be Declan MacManus kicking his alter ego across the room.
A tinge of one of Costello's forerunners shades B&C more noticeably than it has in years. Close your eyes and "Tokyo Storm Warning" might almost be Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan, with the Attractions standing in for The Band.
Mostly the Attractions sound like the Attractions, and that's good. It's difficult to find a better backing band, and — when singer and musicians are in synch, as they are here — virtually impossible to replace the Attractions as Costello's sidemen (notwithstanding Huey Lewis & The News, who backed up Costello on My Aim Is True, sans Lewis).
Nice to have Lowe back on (the) board, too. Lowe's get-it-down-quick philosophy couldn't be improved upon when it comes to Costello. He's tarted things up a bit with a little unobtrusive gimmickry, but the effects don't impinge on the spontaneity and immediacy vital to the music.
It's as though 10 or 15 minutes have elapsed between the song being written and your hearing it. The anger stays hot, the pithiness retains its pith.
Nearly 10 years on, little has changed. Like everyone else, MacManus/Costello/Dynamite has gotten older and (so we all like to believe) wiser, but he's still a sucker for the idealistic sentiments of songs you can hear on the radio. And he'll keep going back for more, and he'll keep on growling and scowling when reality fails to measure up.