Early this year, much was made of Elvis Costello's decision to reclaim his original name, Declan MacManus. This decision — and the ensuing King Of America album — were meant to be a departure from an image and career he no longer understood.
Costello/MacManus returned last week with a new album entitled Blood & Chocolate. Despite the recent name change, this album is credited to Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
For the King Of America sessions, Costello employed a number of legendary musicians. Blood & Chocolate, however, is the work of a particular band with a very distinctive, eight-year history. To release it under any name other than Elvis Costello and the Attractions would have been inaccurate and misleading.
"Uncomplicated" opens the new album with a few crashing guitar chords before jerking into an extremely odd, syncopated rhythm. Reminiscent of the Beatles at their late-'60s, White Album-era loosest, "Uncomplicated" immediately sets the tone for the entire record. In relation to the typically high-tech, studio-only sound of the '80s, Blood & Chocolate sounds positively casual.
Blood & Chocolate is rife with unmistakable references to the Beatles: "I Hope You're Happy Now" and "Next Time 'Round" emphasize Elvis' treble-laden rhythm guitar and bright, upbeat melodies to invoke the Beatles' earliest style of writing and recording.
In addition, the coda to "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" and the thick, bass-heavy sound of "Poor Napoleon" specifically recall the lush production of Magical Mystery Tour. These occasional flourishes of color help bring Blood & Chocolate to life without stranding it in another time and place.
At present, the blatant imitation of past musical eras often passes for "influenced" originality. In defiance of this wearisome trend, Costello/MacManus continues to fill his work with individuality and substance. He has always borrowed selectively from his favorite music; the results, however, are uniquely his own.
"I Want You" and "Battered Old Bird" are this album's hushed, confessional show-stoppers. These two songs build and subside in carefully measured tones; Costello once again displays his uncanny ability to wring every drop of emotion from an intensely personal song without ever sliding into sentimentality.
In the album's lengthy centerpiece, "Tokyo Storm Warning," an initial rush of words and imagery continues on for seven obliquely-written verses. "Two nightmares collide" in what is probably the most overtly cynical lyric ever written about the end of the world. A chorus of "What do we care if the world is a joke / We're only living this instant" sarcastically separates the many slice-of-life descriptions of The Last Big Event.
Elvis Costello hasn't been this angry since 1978's This Year's Model. Though his recent, more introspective work is consistently compelling, "Tokyo Storm Warning" proves that his unbridled anger can still move mountains.
Possibly the one thing Blood & Chocolate lacks is an obvious single. Despite the consistency of the material on this record, no individual song will entice radio programmers or instantly stick in the public's mind.
Like all of Costello's best work, Blood & Chocolate begs for repeated listenings. The details in instrumentation and song structure as well as the subtleties of attitude and feeling — only present themselves over an extended period.
With King Of America and Blood & Chocolate, Costello/MacManus has released two brilliant, though vastly different, albums in the same year. He's not as hip as countless other bands — Austin record stores moved him from the "new music" bins to the "rock" section several years ago.
But talent like his is always immune to the whims of fashion.
Elvis is still the king.