Elvis Costello has joined the ranks of recording artists, such as the Talking Heads or Joe Jackson, who are getting back to rock basics after some artistic wanderings in other musical areas. On the recent Blood & Chocolate, Costello reunites with his band, the Attractions, and producer Nick Lowe, and has returned to simpler melodies and stripped-down arrangements, only leaving the "roots." Unfortunately, these roots are sometimes overwatered.
Costello has assumed the pseudonym Napolean Dynamite for this album, producing a detached lament in "Poor Napolean," a song typical of Blood & Chocolate's schizophrenic skittering between honest emotion and melodrama. Many of the bitter-romantic lyrics are matched by equally weepy instrumentals that outweigh their worth.
"Battered Old Bird" almost falls into this trap, but Costello's excessive vocals are counterbalanced by tender piano chords, preventing an overflow of sentimentality. "Uncomplicated" is not over-emotional, but in opposite excessiveness is devoid of feeling, driving on in tuneless monotony like a washing machine stuck on a spin cycle.
The better songs on the album ("Tokyo Storm Warning," "Home is Where You Hang Your Head") avoid these excesses and ease out naturally. "Blue Chair" is perhaps the best song in this respect, sporting Christmas-flavored keyboards and a soulful bass with Costello's best vocals. The singing is not forced or unnecessarily embellished, but perfectly edged with heart-soaring impatience.
"I Want You" succeeds in bringing sincerity to cliched lyrics, beginning sparsely, but building to a steady, but subdued passion. "I Hope You're Happy Now" contrasts acrid lyrics with a cheerful melody. Costello's humor comes through on the short and sweet party tune, "Honey, Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?"
In the end, Blood & Chocolate is saved by this irony, never falling too far into artificial feeling, eventually pulling back into real heart-pumping resonance.