When Elvis Costello checked in with the listless Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, burnout showed its nasty little face. Worry no more: Just as King Of America signaled a return to form, the new Blood & Chocolate "celebrates" the fully recharged Elvis, brimming with vitriol. It's overwrought and choked with desperate emotions, the way you want his records to be. What fun!
Costello's gift for capturing the heat of the moment has sometimes been undercut by a weakness for too many clever words, compounded by stylistic dabbling. Not on Blood & Chocolate, a horror show devoted to the coarser manifestations of romance. Lyrics are often startlingly, effectively blunt, and even literary outbursts get the point across. There's no synthetic country music, no fake soul, plenty of primal power.
Abetted by the able Attractions and ace producer Nick Lowe, Costello has created his equivalent of Blonde On Blonde, crafting a series of tragicomic vignettes that bleed lyrics and melodies into one gripping whole. "I Hope You're Happy Now" churns energetically like the early days, as Elvis snidely comments on an ex's new lover, who resembles "a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter." He mocks his own hand-wringing by titling one track "Poor Napoleon" — Costello's nom de disque here is Napoleon Dynamite — while lacing the hushed tune with dire lines like "You can take the truthful things you've said to me / And put them on the head of a pin." If severity threatens to crush more functional pop songs, he's also developed a keen sense of absurdity. For details, see "Next Time 'Round," a careening tune of shattered romance, in which Costello predicts, "You'll be someone else's baby / But I'll be underground."
Nick Lowe's sonic textures prove the perfect garnish, with rough-hewn mixes equally suited to nice numbers ("Blue Chair") and stark ones ("Battered Old Bird"). He deftly inserts sounds out of nowhere for dramatic effect, adding echo and snatches of psychedelic guitar to enhance the sprawling energy of "Tokyo Storm Warning" (Elvis' "Subterranean Homesick Blues").
At the center of the action, of course, stands Costello. With his nagging, obsessive voice, he remains the compelling bigmouth who sees too much for his own good and can't keep quiet. Two tracks illustrate El at his best: "Uncomplicated," hoarse devotion over a chaotic backdrop, and "I Want You," an agonizingly slow tale of (what else?) faithless love that finds him leaning into the mike to unnerving effect.
To paraphrase a sage, he never does anything nice and easy — he always does it nice and rough. Blood & Chocolate is essential Elvis Costello.