New York Times, October 19, 1986

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Elvis Costello on betrayal and the many troubles of love

Jon Pareles

When Elvis Costello comes to the Broadway Theater this Tuesday through Saturday, he'll play five different shows. In shifting combinations, he will lead two bands (the Attractions and the Confederates), perform solo, sing duets and even take requests for his own songs and those of other writers. The point is clear: Mr. Costello would rather have variety than a formula, and any style in popular music is fair game.

On the 12 albums he has released since 1977, including the new Blood and Chocolate (Columbia FC 40518, also available on cassette and CD), Mr. Costello has gone genre-hopping from punk (This Year's Model) to country (Almost Blue, King of America), from soul (Get Happy) to light pop (Punch the Clock). He's been wild-eyed, arch, angry, relaxed, cutting — everything except inarticulate.

But behind his changing eyeglasses and hats and guitars, Mr. Costello is always recognizable. His songs usually revolve around descending-scale melodies; his throaty, breathy voice rarely loses its self-consciousness. And through the years, Mr. Costello has stuck to one overriding subject, betrayal. He is fascinated by power and its abuses; for him, every lie and every false move is an abuse of the power conferred by trust.

Mr. Costello sometimes writes about the way governments betray countries, but far more often he looks at wounded, wounding lovers. Blood and Chocolate stays with domestic affairs, and like Mr. Costello's best albums — Trust, Armed Forces, This Year's Model, My Aim Is True — it concentrates on songs instead of genre studies. With his backup band, the Attractions, he fuses the organ-tinged rock of This Year's Model and the subtleties he has cultivated since 1978.

Many of the songs are as straightforward as Mr. Costello gets. His lyrics usually free-associate in a post-Bob Dylan style he has virtually trademarked — streams of puns, movie titles, bent cliches, glints of lucidity — that make collages of moods rather than telling stories like the country and soul songs he admires. But while there are some surreal flights on Blood and Chocolate ("I asked for water / And they gave me rose wine / A horse that knows arithmetic / And a dog that tells your fortune"), most of its songs make their point directly. Love, they insist, is trouble.

Although Mr. Costello embraces popular music, he despises the standard pop-song view of love as some happy-ever-after panacea. Art may not imitate life in Mr. Costello's songs: Declan Patrick MacManus (Mr. Costello's offstage name) recently married Cait O'Riordan, a member of the band the Pogues, who sings backup on Blood and Chocolate. Yet in his songs, lovers are invariably betrayed. And they don't let go of their partners; instead, they become sullen, miserable, pathological.

"You think it's over now / But we've only just begun," Mr. Costello warns in the album's opening song, "Uncomplicated." "Poor Napoleon" takes the point of view of a spurned, murderous woman; the narrator of "Next Time 'Round" threatens suicide: "You'll be someone else's baby / But I'll be underground."

The album's most harrowing song, "I Want You" opens with a pop-song declaration — "Oh my baby baby I love you more than I can tell" — but then goes haywire, as the singer savors the details of a lover's infidelity and his own misery: "I want to know the things you did that we do too / I want you / I want to hear he pleases you more than I do." To twist the knife, the song's setting is a homage to and parody of the Beatles' more affectionate "I Want You."

On some of his recent efforts, Mr. Costello's singing has backed away from the misanthropic rage and pain of his lyrics. Not on Blood and Chocolate — arguably Mr. Costello's best vocal performance. He snarls, he sputters, he insinuates, he sulks. In "Battered Old Bird," he works up a raw-voiced crescendo that suddenly derails the song; two very different takes are spliced together for an effect that recalls the scene in Ingmar Bergman's Persona in which a confrontation seems to burn through the film.

Mr. Costello's fans have kept predicting a pop breakthrough for him, assuming that a songwriter so intelligent, prolific and dedicated to popular music should also have hit singles. He prettied up his backup on Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, but retained his free-associating lyrics, with only moderate commercial results. Now, he has tried the opposite tack, matching aggressive music to lyrics whose message is unmistakable. It may not be a message the larger pop audience wants to hear — but it makes for a first-rate album.

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New York Times, October 19, 1986

Jon Pareles reviews Blood & Chocolate and previews the Broadway Theatre shows.


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Photo by Ebet Roberts.
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Page scan.
1986-10-19 New York Times page H-25.jpg


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