If his fellow countrymen pursued their craft with one ounce of the dedication of Elvis Costello, the U.K. would not now be sliding deeper and deeper into an economic and moral abyss.
Mind you, if that beloved blighted isle was populated with people an iota as obsessed and obsessive as the chameleon Costello and his alter ego, Declan MacManus, there's no telling what strangeness might follow. Blood & Chocolate (Columbia) is Costello's second full-blown LP in less than six months and his what, 13th?, in nine years upon the rock scene.
Because it is a direct contradiction of everything El set out to accomplish with his last, King of America, it is perhaps the most fascinating album of his astonishingly varied career. After long and sort-of tortured deliberation, I also happen to think it's his most consistently powerful piece of goods since Armed Forces in '79.
A bit of background. King of America was to represent the complete break with a past created when the then-Declan MacManus changed his name to Costello in the mid-1970s and launched a brilliant career as the definitive singer-songwriter of the British punk detonation.
In a move destined to burn the bridges before him, Costello finally dropped his wife; slagged off his great long-time band the Attractions and much of the early work they'd done together; changed his name back to MacManus; took up with the lovely Cait O'Riordan of the Pogues; and set off for America to record a completely different record with producer T. Bone Burnett and a skeleton crew of session musicians. The results were everything he, and we, could have hoped for from a new man; initially off-putting because so unfamiliar but ultimately richly rewarding, it was the work of a mature individual. Not since prime Dylan or Bowie had an artist in rock's caustic bright light so effectively engaged in the act of self-re-creation. Neato.
Now along comes Blood & Chocolate, and a more complete about-face could not be imagined. Costello has returned to the Attractions, returned to early producer Nick Lowe and casual production values, even marginally returned to the name Costello itself. (This is a complicated one. The LP is credited to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the songs are written by MacManus, and the liner notes — written in Esperanto! — list one Napoleon Dynamite as singer, bandleader. Talk about covering the angles.)
More importantly, he's returned with a gnawing passion to the sexual battlefield — the land of revenge and guilt he charts better than anyone writing in any medium at this point in history.
A confession. When I first heard this record through three weeks ago, thanks to a pre-release tape from CBS, I thought it was a bad joke. I thought Costello maybe had some contractual obligations with the band, or Lowe, or the record company, and had to rush out an LP to appease the lawyers. So he'd rummaged around, found some old outtakes, slapped them together and placed the package like a bouquet of manure in the arms of the industry, just one last kiss-off from a reborn man. I was wrong.
I thought that way because the LP is as raw as a wound full of road salt. From the opening mechanical rhythms of "Uncomplicated" — the LP cryptically starts, "Blood and Chocolate / I hope you're satisfied with what you have done / You think it's over now / But we've only just begun" — to the scalding last put-down of "Next Time Round," this does not sound like the music of a man at peace and in love. This doesn't sound like anything we were ready for at all.
Patience will be repaid in full. The first step into this psycho-soap opera comes with the LP's centrepiece, a horrific dirge for organ and splintered guitar called "I Want You" that lands with the delicacy of acid on skin.
This is Costello's most harrowing bedroom drama ever, the story of confronting a mate's infidelity and revelling self-destructively in the sexual insecurities that follow the discovery.
"I woke up and one of us was crying... / I want to know the things you did that we do too... / I want to hear he pleases you more that I do."
These and harder lines are set against the title chorus sung like the man is either dying or about to commit murder. It is unquestionably the deepest, darkest song Costello, or anyone else in rock, as ever written. And the guitar solo is brutal, like the cut of a vivisectionist's knife.
So back to the beginning, and another look around. With eyes and ears open, it becomes obvious Blood & Chocolate is a serious affair. It's also a big record, going on 50 minutes, and it touches bases with much of Costello and the Attraction's musical and lyric heritage like he'd never been away. It's true, you can go home again.
There's the bright cheesy organ of "I Hope You're Happy Now," with El's patented screaming fade-out; the bittersweet word games of "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head;" and "Battered Old Bird," a story of child molestion and murder set in a rooming house that contains some of Costello's most acute writing and outraged vocals.
Then there's "Tokyo Storm Warning," co-written with O'Riordan, and inexplicably released as the album's first single. Ha ha! Not only does this wordfest lift its entire structure whole from the Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown" (with apologies to the Kinks' "Well-Respected Man"), but it is too dense, too long and too weird to ever make the radio. Just a little joke guys.
That's just off the top. Every song on the LP — the wistful "Poor Napoleon" and the witty booze 'n' accuse of "Blue Chair" to name two — comes of age with time.
Part of this can be attributed to some of Costello's finest, most anguished vocals ever; part to his and Lowe's solid guitars.
Partly, too, it's because the Attractions are playing with more spare subtlety than ever; Bruce Thomas's bass alternates between carrying the muscular melody line and holding the bottom to earth under Costello's mercurial mood swings; Pete Thomas plays just the drums that count, and Steve Nieve has reduced his keyboards to the slightest perfection of color and support. And Lowe is not underproducing at all. Just listen to the way a guitar lick jumps in for one bar of emphasis, then disappears; the way Costello's vocals are miked to reinforce the outraged sentiments in a particular passage of "Battered Old Bird;" or O'Riordan's swelling back-up vocals on "Crimes of Paris." There is no more sympathetic, intelligent, let-the-music-say-it producer around. And the music here says all that needs to be said.
Blood & Chocolate may encounter resistance, if only because it turns such a radical direction away from Costello's most recent stuff. Right now, though, I figure it's the best album of the year. Maybe you will, too.