On last year's King of America, Elvis Costello displayed an almost religious sense of renewal in reclaiming his pre-Flvis identity as Declan McManus. Here we find him reunited with his old band, old producer and old pseudonym. The album rings with frustration.
Producer Nick Lowe picks up where his last Costello productions left off, striving in vain to compensate for the lost venom of the singer's youth. The Attractions sound characteristically unfocused but create a melodic, Beatle-esque background for Costello's severe character sketches.
Many of these songs continue to sound like throwaways after several listenings. Elsewhere, in "I Want You" and "Battered Old Bird," Costello's vocals strain for an almost-embarrassing level of emotion. The despair at the core of all this is revealed in "Tokyo Storm Warning," a stark, image-crammed drone about nihilism. On this track, Costello jettisons the upbeat lining of "Less Than Zero," his earlier rumination on similar ideas. Sure, that song was depressing, but at least its bouncy melody could get a few people thinking. "Tokyo Storm Warning" is a morass, a musical black hole whose form denies its own ability to change anything.
Why Costello took such a grim step backward right now is a mystery. These understated songs may prove more substantial than they seem — Costello's depths should never be underestimated. But for the moment, Blood and Chocolate sounds like a minor effort, an Imperial Bedroom without that album's emotional power.