The new Elvis Costello/MacManus/Napoleon Dynamite album (I am still waiting for him to decide what he wants to be called) Blood & Chocolate is in many ways both a success and a failure. He seems to be slowly living down the praise paid to him by Linda Ronstadt when she called him perhaps the best songwriter of all time. I say he is living this comment down slowly because Blood & Chocolate shows him to be both a very good songwriter and a very confused and confusing songwriter.
Praise by Linda Ronstadt is faint praise indeed. To my knowledge she has never written a song of her own and is at best a pretty face who does an adequate job of breathing new life into other people's oldies. Costello, though, is still struggling as a performer. He has never really broken through in the manner he should. Always adored by the critics, he has only rarely been able to appeal to the American record-buying public. This album should be no different. There are no songs on this album that are comparable to his best-known singles of "Pump It Up" or "I Write The Book". There are no outright great singles, but there are several songs that are very good.
"I Hope You're Happy Now" and "Home Is Where You Hang Your Head" certainly fit the bill for the "love-sucks" song genre. "I Hope You're Happy Now" describes the feelings of a man who watches his old lover with another man. He sees her putting this newcomer through the same hell she subjected him to. He ends the song with the self defensive coda "I knew then what I know now/l never loved you anyhow."
'Home Is Where You Hang Your Head" is an even more miserable love song. 'Here comes Mr. Misery/He's tearing out his hair again/He's crying over her again/He's standing in the supermarket shouting at the customers". Here is another jilted lover who can't understand why nobody cares. Costello does not resolve or give any indication that it is anybody else's concern. The message is that Costello doesn't care about this person and the world doesn't either: ' 'And the world has wiped it's mouth since then/Or maybe it was yawning'
Whoa!! hard to get happy after that.
It's alright that these songs equate love with futility. We can still admire the picture. This is harder to do later, however, with songs like "Blue Chair". One gets the vague impression that this is another song about a broken love affair but that certainty isn't there. The song is written in language so vague and enigmatic that it is almost impossible to decipher. Float this mess on an ocean of indefinite pronouns and you have a song that you not only do not understand but don't really want to.
All the songs, however, are not the anthems of the cast-off, resentful lover. "I Want You" is a brilliant, unrequited love song. There may not be a big difference between the two subjects, but there is a great difference in the feeling. It consciously echoes the Beatles song of the same title. There is the same slow ostinato form and a very Harrisonesque guitar squawkings, followed by tortured Lennon-like vocals. His voice, which has often been described as grating on the nerves, here achieves a real emotional quality that is both delicate and pained.
Another excellent song and the one most resembling a single is "Tokyo Storm Warning." Powered by a big beat rhythm and churning guitars, it is one of the few really upbeat songs on the album. It
is also a song that showcases Costello's considerable abilities as a songwriter. It contains many internal and end rhymes, that, in his somewhat unique phrasing, are delightful in their inventiveness. Costello does not deal with love in this song, but instead makes satiric thrusts at everything from protest singers to the tawdry materialism of the jet set. Here again he paints a grim picture and lets us stew in it. What good is it to sing protest songs when nobody cares about what you are protesting? ' 'They say the gold paint on the palace gates comes from the teeth of pensioners/They are so tired of shooting protest singers/That they hardly mention us/While fountains fill with second hand perfume/ And sodden trading stamps/ They'll hang the bullies and the louts that dampen down the day". You may not always know who he is slamming but you have to be impressed with the way he does it.
The idea of the artist, touched on in "Tokyo Storm Warning," expands its level of cynicism in "Tired Old Bird". Here he draws an analogy between an artistic mind and a house filled with different characters. There are abusive parents, psychotic and murderous Clark Kent types, and alchoholic writers. Throughout there are drugs and a crutch that keeps life steady but motionless.
Musically the album is the same old Costello—fairly simple, post punk, rock and roll. It is competent but never very surprising. The only time that he ever really bubbles over and gives us a little bit of musical excitement is in the little rave up "Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?" Again he mines the old vein of an uncertain relationship with a woman. It does not have any of the depressing qualities of the other songs on the album and reminds me of one of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Blood & Chocolate contains some extraordinary songs and a lot of pained and confused ramblings. When Costello is able to write songs like "I Want You" and "Tokyo Storm Warning", we are willing to listen and pay attention. When he wanders around a subject relying on a few nicely turned phrases we turn him off.