Rolling Stone, November 6, 1986

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Rolling Stone

US rock magazines


Blood & Chocolate

Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Rob Tannenbaum

With the release of Blood & Chocolate, Elvis Costello's credibility problem matches that of Neil Young. Earlier this year, Elvis announced that he was returning to his given name of Declan MacManus to "divorce myself" from the snarling reputation of Elvis Costello. He dismissed his previous album Goodbye Cruel World, recorded with his perennial band, the Attractions, as "a waste" and "a load of wank," and proclaimed an era of New Sincerity by recording the warmer, less inscrutable King of America with a pickup band of session veterans. This new guise lasted about as long as one of David Bowie's haircuts. On this album, his thirteenth in nine years, he reclaims the Costello name, and reunites with the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe, who guided Elvis's first six albums. The return isn't merely nominal: Blood & Chocolate recalls the venom of This Year's Model and the artiness of Imperial Bedroom, but the result is as tentative as Trust.

Costello's earlier forays into country, soul and psychedelia were probably inevitable, given his and the Attractions' mastery of pop forms, and although some will see Blood & Chocolate as a return to basics, similar to Talking Heads' Little Creatures, Costello is still exploring an alternative to pop. The spiteful bashing of "I Hope You're Happy Now" could be an outtake from 1978, but the Attractions don't match the hook-a-rama of their first efforts (keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas sound almost harnessed). "Uncomplicated" is ruined by psychedelic clutter and punkish clatter, the latter in the form of Costello's awful guitar playing. Several songs have sudden, incidental sonic details, and the last part of side two is almost impenetrable. This is an odd turn, since Lowe used to be the most unaffected producer in pop. But it suggests that even though Costello has abandoned the stylistic experiments of recent years, he still doesn't have complete confidence in the songs. The annoyingly breathy oversinging that peaked on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" from King of America also continues here, providing a redundant emphasis to the grim cityscape of "Battered Old Bird." Not since Phoebe Snow has a singer puffed so much breath into each syllable.

For all the signature wit and wordplay of Costello's lyrics, the songs are too frequently glib or sketchy. His reliance on one-liners continues on "Uncomplicated," in which he sings, "When you're over me / There's no one above you." His attempted tour de force, "Tokyo Storm Warning," is a grisly dispatch — it sounds like the young Dylan singing with Iron Butterfly — that reports from Alabama, the Falklands and Japan, but unites the bloody images only with the observation that "death wears a big hat." And although no one else could reveal the lyrical link between George Jones and the Smiths, as Costello does in the midnight melodrama of "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," a psychological miniature like "Blue Chair" is just another addition to his long resumé of songs full of guilt and bile.

The best song on Blood & Chocolate is "I Want You," the record's one pure invention, and as good a performance as Costello has ever recorded. Beginning with the simple emotion of the title, Elvis unblinkingly adds jealousy, malice, desperation and all the other facets of desire, until his confession ranges beyond obsession and into danger. It's here that Costello reclaims the stunning rush of his first releases by trading on the tension between his spiteful and sincere modes. Like so many of the characters on his new album, Elvis Costello seems to be circling his possibilities, hiding a fear of the future behind an infatuation with the past.

Tags: Blood & ChocolateThe AttractionsSteve NieveBruce ThomasPete ThomasNick LoweMusician, March 1986Declan MacManusKing Of AmericaGoodbye Cruel WorldDavid BowieNeil YoungThis Year's ModelImperial BedroomTrustTalking HeadsI Hope You're Happy NowUncomplicatedDon't Let Me Be MisunderstoodBattered Old BirdTokyo Storm WarningBob DylanGeorge JonesThe SmithsHome Is Anywhere You Hang Your HeadBlue ChairI Want You

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Rolling Stone, No. 486, November 6, 1986

Rob Tannenbaum reviews Blood & Chocolate.

Elvis Costello is namechecked in Anthony DeCurtis's Billy Joel interview.


1986-11-06 Rolling Stone page 74.jpg
Page scan.

Billy Joel: The Rolling Stone Interview

Anthony DeCurtis


1986-11-06 Rolling Stone cover.jpg

How do you hear new music? Do you watch MTV or listen to the radio? Do you go out and buy records?

Every way you mentioned. I go to the record store, and I'll buy twenty cassettes at a shot. New stuff, old stuff, whatever I see. I look around. I got the Peter Gabriel album a couple of months ago. He's great. I've liked Peter Gabriel for a long time.

What about Prince? Did you hear the last Prince record or see Under the Cherry Moon?

I didn't go see it. I like his 1999-era stuff. That may be my own block. There was such a personality cult that arose around him — that put me off.

What about Sting?

Yeah, Sting, definitely. I think the two greatest songwriters right now are Elvis Costello and Sting. Elvis Costello specifically for lyrics, and Sting specifically for music. Those two guys have definitely had an impact on me and how I perceive the writing I'm doing. Sting brought a jazz consciousness out.

"Running on Ice" from The Bridge seems to have a Police feel to it.

Yeah, I think that and "Mulberry Street," where my voice is real high. I'd walk around the house singing Police songs, Sting songs, and say, "Gee, I didn't realize I could sustain that kind of high note. Maybe I should try singing a song in that key." I never would have thought of it, if it hadn't been for Sting.

What about Costello?

Well, he's such a literate writer. It's not the cleverness that gets to me, it's his use of the English language — it's a beautiful and also a tough language. Costello has tied them both together. I think he's had an impact on every group that followed him — he's the godfather of that whole New Wave. I don't think you can be a thinking writer and not have been affected by him.

How about Bruce Springsteen?

In the old days we used to see each other's gigs a lot. I think we went in different directions. I try to use economy, where Bruce can expound. I think he uses a lot of words very well. I like to use as few words as I can, because efficiency is something I like. He's also taken performance to its height. He lives to perform. I don't think Bruce's music has impacted my music. I like his purity, I admire that spirit of purity. I mean, he's living his rock & roll dream. Rock as religion, rock & roll as heroism. And he's proved it. He is the essence of it.

The Beatles have consistently influenced your music. What sort of Impact did they have on you as you were growing up?

The main thing that hit me was that they played their own instruments. That made them legitimate musicians, whereas a lot of pop stars were just singers. They wrote their own songs. They wrote their own lyrics, they did their own arrangements, they sang their own harmonies. For me, they were the rock & roll band that showed the most growth of any band I've heard before or since. It was almost like seeing into them. Every time there was a record, there was an incredible amount of progression.


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