Elvis Costello is just too goddamned smart for his own good. The boy's ear for startling turns of phrase and ironic twists on banal expressions has led him to write some of the most sublimely meaningless lyrics in human history. Submitted for your approval: lyrics from "Tokyo Storm Warning" from El's latest, Blood & Chocolate. A representative couplet: "Japanese God-Jesus robots telling teenage fortunes / For all we know and all we care they might as well be Martians." I for one can't help loving this kind of stuff, but deep in my heart of hearts I know that it's just fancy footwork and really means nothing at all.
If we were so inclined, we might be tempted at this point to leap into a discussion of the weird relationship between "signified" and "signifier" or some other such semiotic claptrap about how you can never really understand what someone is trying to tell you. (This sort of thing is clearly on Elvis's mind too; the production notes for Blood & Chocolate are thoughtfully provided in everybody's favorite artificial language, Esperanto.) In the interest of greater understanding, however, let's pose a broader question about Costello's new record: Does it rock?
Yes, I'm happy to say, it does. After the relative mellow of his last record, King of America, this disc clatters and clangs along with the garage-band verve that has made Elvis and his backup band, the Attractions, the toast of skinny guys with glasses the world over. This is snide music that will no doubt provide a new generation of hapless wimps with withering comeback lines guaranteed to render all bullies speechless, if not nonviolent. In a world of bitter compromises, we ran hope for little more.
The production is more stark and the Attractions less inclined to fly off on baroque tangents than usual, but Blood & Chocolate is at least a partial return to form for Elvis. On King of America, he shed his bug-eyed geek persona (even to the extent of recording under his real name, Declan Patrick MacManus) and he momentarily walked among us in human form, dispensing with his usual stock reactions of scorn and contempt in favor of such slippery sentiments as tenderness and forgiveness. A voice which had long been put to brilliant use accusing and chastising was applied to the more demanding (and less immediately gratifying) tasks of caressing and comforting. But Elvis knows this is the '80s and that "sensitive man" stuff just won't wash anymore. On Blood & Chocolate, we find him laying to rest any notions that he can no longer spew bile with the best of them.
Elvis (billed here inexplicably as "Napoleon Dynamite") is out there cursing and screaming, insisting "I hope you're happy now," and sarcastically wondering "What do we care if the world is a joke?" If he's more than a tad whiny and self-righteous — and he is — let's not forget that we've all had days like that, and the thing about self-righteousness is that it really feels good. Elvis gives us all the fun and entertainment of a prolonged attack of paranoid hysteria — and where else can you get that kind of value for your dollar?
To his everlasting credit, he also gives us more, like the excellent songs toward the end of side one, which climaxes with "Next Time Round," a truly towering fit of persecution mania with a great melody and a good beat. Other highlights include the easily hummable "Crimes of Paris" and "I Want You," an extended psychosexual drama that may put the listener in mind of a song with the same name John Lennon did a long time ago with the Beatles. Elvis alternates repetitions of the line "I want you" with all kinds of obscure circumlocutions. It's the sound of a man simultaneously trying to be a wise guy and telling himself to stop screwing around and just come out with it.
As usual, Elvis talks so well and so fast that it's usually impossible to guess what he's talking about; this needn't be a problem, unless you're hung up on things like "meaning." Costello is a man singing beautifully in a language that is only intermittently comprehensible; he's either speaking in tongues or babbling incoherently. Either way, groove on the invective and leave the "significance" to the rock critics.