Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson are two of the most important artists currently making music today. Both are vital, intelligent songwriters, who have consistently bettered themselves from album to album. Whenever one of them releases an album, they release it into the midst of great expectations, and harsh desires. Costello is a household name, Thompson still a "cult" figure. Costello's new LP "Blood & Chocolate" will not hurt his standing in any measurable way. Thompson's "Daring Adventures" will probably not alter his status either. The similarities between the two, although they come from radically different backgrounds, are starting. Both have gone through musical phases like most people shed clothing. Costello has experimented with country ("Almost Blue"), Tin Pan Alley songwriting (the brilliant "Imperial Bedroom"), soul ("Get Happy"), and of course the early basic rock of "My Aim is True". "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces." For his last LP, the remarkable "King of America," Elvis changed his name back to his original moniker Declan Patrick Aloyisius McManus, and gave his backing band, The Attractions, the album off. The move paid off in spades, as "KOA" was, to my ears, the most intimate record Elvis / Declan had made up until that time. The songs were from Elvis' strongest emotions. and the trio that finished off side one, "Indoor Fireworks," "Little Palaces", and the stunning "I'll Wear it Proudly," were three of the finest moments I've heard on disc in ages. With little exception, the remainder of the album measured up to those songs' standard. And I suppose - because of the high achievements of the record previous to "Blood & Chocolate," the present release disappoints acutely on first glance.
The first problem 1 had with the new album is that the production is terrible: Nick Lowe is back after an extended sabbatical, and I for one cannot see why Elvis would need Lowe at this point in his career. Lowe adequately produced the first six Costello & Attractions discs, and then Costello headed in a new direction that Lowe was not compatible with. Now he's back, and his "dust on the needle" production dilutes the impact of the Attractions and Costello's sound. But, the songs save the sound: Costello is a genius: he would never admit it, but his penchant for saying just the right thing, and playing just the right notes is unfaltering. Costello once said that his motivations early in his career were "revenge and guilt," and though he's softened somewhat, those factors still figure heavily in his subject matter. Although he seems to have found domestic happiness with Cait O'Riordan of the Pogues, his tone is still unremittingly bitter. "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," is one of the cheerful titles and sentiments that pervade "Blood & Chocolate." The best song on the album is the long, quiet "I Want You," which sounds like a demo; Thus, it is the most effective production coup present. You want heartache: "Did you mean to tell me but seem to forget / Since when were you so generous and inarticulate? / It's the stupid details my heart is breaking for / It's the way your shoulders shake and what they're shaking for / It's knowing that he knows you now after only guessing / It's the though of him undressing you or you undressing." The song rolls on until the only obvious ending for the situation: "I'm going to say it once again 'til I instill it / I know I'm going to feel this way until you kill it / I want you." Mesmerizing. It's a credit to Costello that he succeeds despite the poor production of Lowe. On the other side, Richard Thompson has enlisted the pristine production of Mitchell Froom on his "Daring Adventures." This is also an album that does not hit upon first listen. Tunes like "A Bone Through Her Nose," "Valerie," and "Nearly in Love," are catchy enough. (As is Costello's single "Tokyo Storm Warning.") but at initial listen this record lacks the punch of Thompson's previous work. But soon, the seductiveness of his voice, guitar playing, and melodic sense team up to grab you. The three aforementioned songs, as well as "Jennie" are as melodically developed as any of Thompson's recent rock-oriented work. For those of you who prefer Richard's more subdued side, there's "Long Dead Love," "Lovers' Lane," "How Will I Ever be Simple Again," and the album's closer' "Al Bowlly's in Heaven." Thompson is nearly as cheerful as Costello. In "Long dead love / How much dirt must you shovel on what's already dead / Don't send flowers to remember, send thorns instead / Who's that polishing the tombstone over our heads?" Cheery stuff, folks. For those of you who have followed R.T. since the halycon days of Fairport Convention, one of the seminal folk-rock bands of our age, and were initially blown away by Richard's distinctive guitar, (Check out Mark Knofler of Dire Straits if you want to see Thompson's influence.) take heart in the fact that it's still present. It is more entwined with the songs, but it is out front quite often.
So brave record buyers. two old pros have shoved albums at us that do not scream and shout, but quietly suggest themselves.