There's something about the worst that brings out the best in Elvis Costello. Some singers may be inspired by the power of love, others may moan about romance gone wrong, but Costello prefers to rant, rave and rage over the cruelty of the human condition.
Which, more than anything, is what makes him so appealing.
Don't get the wrong idea, though. Elvis Costello is not the knock-kneed nasty portrayed in his early publicity shots, the pun-crazed rocker who snarled at the slightest hint of sentiment. Neither is he simply a smarter-than-average songsmith for whom vituperation is just a verbal ploy. The key to Elvis Costello's art lies in his anger, and none of his albums shows that so clearly as his latest with the Attractions, Blood & Chocolate (Columbia FC 40518).
No sooner does the album start than Costello is bawling, "Blood and chocolate / I hope you're satisfied ..." As the rest of the songs roll by, about the only thing that changes is the focus of his enmity. Sometimes, as with "Battered Old Bird," he takes aim at political targets; at other times, as in "Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?," he dresses down some errant lover. Throughout, he seems royally ticked.
It isn't simply the material that makes the difference, though; part of the impression is perspective, for Blood & Chocolate sounds considerably tougher than his last few albums. There's nothing slick or studio-conscious about the sound this time, because instead of tarting up the Attractions the way Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World did, Costello and producer Nick Lowe return to the stripped-down basics of This Year's Model. Nor does the singer indulge in the sort of experimentation that steered King of America off course. What we have here is straight Elvis, unvarnished and unpretentious.
Well, musically, at least. The lyrics are another matter. Costello's wordplay has always depended upon ambiguity, but his songs' obscurity once was mainly a matter of surface, leaving a layer of double-entendres and puns to drive the point home.
Here, though, Costello seems obscure to a degree that's positively Dylanesque. Granted, the best phrases here have an impressive resonance, but it's almost impossible to puzzle out their points of reference. You can hear this most clearly in the ominous, dreamlike jumble of "Tokyo Storm Warning" (at one point, Costello cracks, "They're so tired of shooting protest singers / That they hardly mention us"), but an ongoing elusiveness pervades the album.
Take "Crimes of Paris," for instance. The song seems to start off as a denunciation of fashion, punning on the way the name of a mythic beauty contest judge is echoed by the home of haute couture. Poke at the lyrics long enough, and it's possible to shake loose some nugget of meaning.
What makes this record work, though, is not the wordplay but the voice behind it, and that's a strength Costello exploits to the fullest. While it's true that his singing voice is a rather strange vehicle, boasting immense control but a basically ugly tone, Costello knows how to use his flaws as well as his strengths so that the phlegmatic tone of "I Want You" or the raw-throated scream in "Battered Old Bird" ends up illuminating those songs, filling in the blanks the way mere words — his words, anyway — never could.