One decade and 11 albums into a brilliant career, pop's most persistent moniker-monger is still playing the name game: having buried Brother Coward and killed off The Imposter, the increasingly-chameleonic "Elvis Costello" has now ditched his Declan Patrick Aloysius guise in favour of Napoleon Dynamite, this latest alias coming from a painting by Eamonn Singer that adorns the sleeve of Blood And Chocolate.
Delusions of regal or imperial nature, of course, are nothing new to Elvis, sorry, Napoleon. From the original Stiff Records "Elvis Is King" slogan through Imperial Bedroom to this year's King Of America set, the manic myopic has regularly betrayed the odd public sign of rampant megalomania.
For his second campaign of 1986, however, our aural autocrat has temporarily shelved his international ambitions and opted for an adventure closer to home, recalling exiled courtiers The Attractions to their amps, introducing wife Cait on backing vocals and reinstating palace jester Nick Lowe behind the royal production console.
The result is an impetuous and often violent charge through the musical territories lost after the Trust plebiscites of the early '80s and a couple of popwise principalities practically unpopulated since the This Year's Model uprising of 1978.
Blood And Chocolate — the cassette version is brilliantly packaged as a red and gold pastiche of a Cadbury's Bournville bar — is Costello's most bruisingly direct musical statement in years. Its red-raw intensity contrasts starkly with the sweeter, more humane King Of America; whether it emerges as a superior body of work will take longer than an overnight assessment to determine.
The recent "Tokyo Storm Warning" single, forgetting its two glaringly obvious debts to "Memphis, Tennessee" and "19th Nervous Breakdown", sets an incendiary blueprint for the album. A vivid cascade of international horror images, it tours the world's tourist troublespots from KKK-infested Montgomery to the Malvinas — a cheap holiday in other people's misery.
The single's deliberately cluttered, claustrophobic sound patterns are repeated on the pounding opener "Uncomplicated" — the song from which the title comes — and at various intervals throughout the LP. While the returning Attractions etch out a hard, abrasive edifice of noise-contortion, guitarist Costello (I'm sorry, but "Dynamite" just won't trip sweetly off the tongue) veers off into tangential, atonal pastures.
Even the ballads have a dense uncompromising core, the guitar and keyboards frequently cutting discordantly across the rhythm to make Blood And Chocolate the most un-easy listening LP in the entire Costello canon. And, for all Nick Lowe's faithful adherence to the "basher" principle of recording Elvis, there is no shortage of sonic shading and syncopation.
The lyrical imagery, complying with the music, is often drawn from a nightmarish world, surreal snatches of stories detailing the dark agonies wreaked on a tortured soul by a Love Gone Mad. "I Hope You're Happy Now" and "I Want You" are rooted in insane jealousies, the latter beginning as a simple acoustic love song before twisting into a harrowing tale of an embittered obsession complete with frighteningly psychotic vocal performance.
The despair of rejection also fuels the doleful, bizarre "Home Is Anywhere You Lay Your Head": "Here comes Mr Misery / He's tearing his hair out again / He's crying over her again / He's standing in the supermarket shouting at the customers..."
Not all the album's lines are quite so evocative. Both the throwaway "Blue Chair" and the routinely-bluely "Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?" scale uncharacteristic heights of ham lyricism. On the cinematic "Poor Napoleon" and the tenement playlet "Battered Old Bird", however, EC's descriptive talents are at their supreme best.
If Blood And Chocolate represents a return of sorts to the grit and bile that marked Costello's early albums, it is a welcome resurrection of a tough streak that has been underplayed since the turn of the decade. Stripped, too, of the excess musical baggage — the glossy productions and occasionally forced Americanisms — that at times leadened LPs like Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World and even King Of America, this is the most stark, honest record that Costello has made since the magnificent Trust. It is more Birthday Suit than Emperor's New Clothes.
Whether it will win him new devotees, despite the snippets of the "universal language" Esperanto on the credits, is sadly doubtful. But for those who number themselves already among the converts, Blood And Chocolate is another fascinating LP and yet another departure.
As a man who entered 1986 on the artistic nadir of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," the Sovereign Of Sound has been remarkably proficient and pre-eminent in the past eight months. All in all, yet another good year for the roses.