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CD Review: Unjustly Overlooked Albums Blood and Chocolate – Elvis Costello and the Attractions

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Another in a series . . .

Uncomplicated, indeed. I like the perverse behind-the-music story of sorts surrounding Blood and Chocolate, Elvis Costello’s 1986 snark and snarl ode to snark and snarl, almost as much as I like its ragged, jagged, skeletal starkness and its seemingly hasty-afterthought spontaneity. In an interview shortly after his previous folk and roots-rooted release, King of America, Costello announced that, in the vein of the careful, finely honed craftsmanship and more straightforward songwriting that infused King, he was through with being overwrought and obscure. Wayward wordplay and a sometimes forced wit — that “chainsaw running through a dictionary” — is all very well and good in its place and time, but it’s no match for heart and humanity, the hearth and home set midst the new morning coming ‘cross that Nashville skyline. His aim is truer; why, sometimes he indeed almost feels just like a human being.

A still contrarian one, perhaps. As soon as it took to drop the session musicians and the esteemed Presley cohorts, Costello, the anti-King, and anti-King, hastily reassembled the Attractions and herded them back into the studio for the unexpectedly scrappy new release, taking on for this project the new moniker Napoleon Dynamite, long before the Jared Hess, director of the cinematic Napoleon Dynamite availed himself of it, admittedly in ignorance (Elvis had no problem, saying that if the descendents of Presley and Abbott and Costello had no beef with him, then neither did he have similar objections). Blood and Chocolate — all edge and angle, two parts biting-the-hand anger to one part throwback recriminatory fixation — chipped away a considerable chunk of any residual good will and elegance remaining from the previous work.

Good. Taking him at his word, Blood was “a pissed-off, 32-year-old divorcé’s version of This Year’s Model,” but for whatever reason — agitation, impulse, Dylan-style dissembling and musical legerdemain — Costello zigged when it was expected he’d zag, much like Neil Young, in an artistically healthy move, instinctively whiplashed in the ’70s from the enormous commercial success of the mellow Harvest to more against-the-grain, shadowy works such as Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and especially Tonight’s the Night. Of course, Costello, with King, was unhampered by the burdens of commercial success, but he had the right intuiton, and better yet, the impatience and ever-present itch to explore, musically and — naturally hand-in-hand — personally: “If I’m gonna go down, you’re gonna come with me,” he cordially invited in This Year’s Model.

And at the start of Blood, Costello let us know we’re still submerged in the dregs of the emotional bloodbath that was and is still to be, that we’re in for an as yet undefined ordeal for the long-haul: “You think it’s over now, but we’ve only just begun,” he promises in the first song, “Uncomplicated,” and between that call and the response in the album’s boisterous last track (“Next Time ‘Round”), the singer finds himself increasingly bloodied and bowed, acquiescing to “your elastic love, this velvet-lined purgatory.” Between beginning and end, though, there’s a lot of ground to cover, upon which Costello variously grandstands and grovels.

Even those songs replete with trademark hook-filled infectiousness don’t go too long without the sweetness and light becoming rubble in the ruins. Sinking down in the “Blue Chair,” you “say that your love lasts forever when you know the night is just hours”; in “Crimes of Paris,” you’re only “as good as your word and that’s no good to her.”

But in the turntable spittle of the more overt and vitriolic angry youngish man songs, Costello seethes in a way that is positively 4th-Street, as in “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” where he fairly relishes in the knowledge that “this’ll hurt you more than it hurts me.” In “Battered Old Bird,” the narrator, among others who “swallows sleeping pills like dreams,” takes his pessimism about life and the people in his, to an extreme:

Well here’s a boy if ever there was
Who’s going to do bad things
That’s what they all say and that’s how the trouble begins.
I’ve seen them rise and fall
Been through their big deals and smalls
He better have a dream that goes beyond four walls.”
You think he should be sent outside playing with the traffic
When pieces of him are already scattered in the attic.

Some of those “dreams beyond four walls” become a hynagogic hell – darkly Bosch-ian enough, though sometimes cartoonishly and too-senselessly so. In the desolation row of “Tokyo Storm Warning,” a stream-of-consciousness marathon run-on of evocative surrealism and spite that is the most antithetical — in structure and spirit — to anything on King of America, Costello explicates the contention that “We’ve always been like worlds apart, now your seeing two nightmares collide,” bringing into the mix Disney abattoirs, KKK conventions, “dead Italian tourists bodies [that] litter up the Broadway,” and “Japanese God-Jesus robots telling teenage fortunes.” Is it any wonder, then, that “the world is a joke” wherein “Death wears a big hat ‘cause he’s a big bloke . . . We’re only living this instant.”

From the cosmos to a quotidian sense however, headgear is nowhere but “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head,” as “Mr. Misery” is “contemplating murder again/ He must be in love.” And dejection turns into psychotic obsession in “I Want You” when the florid and folk-y troubadour-ian intro segues into something more unseemly and paranoid, slowly building in menace and intensity to the extent that you’re left wondering if “every breath you take,” may be the last:

It’s the stupid little details that my heart is breaking for

It’s the shoulders that you shake and what they’re shaking for
It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing
(I want you)
It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing
(I want you)
He tossed some tatty compliment your way
(I want you)
And you were fool enough to love it when he said
(I want you)
(I want you).
The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark
It scares you witless
But in time you see things clear and stark
(I want you)
Go on and hurt me then we’ll let it drop
(I want you)
I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop . . .

“Did you ever think there’s far too many people in the world?” The title character in “Poor Napoleon” asks, in a far more disturbingly insidious than idly innocent manner — and if it is idle, more akin to the connection between inactive hands and the devil’s workshop. The further ambiguity and blurring of the lines between the bitter and the sweet comprised in “blood and chocolate” finds a correlation with the conflation of aggression and affection: “One day they’ll probably make a movie out of all of this / There won’t even have to be a murder just a slow dissolving kiss.”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Great take on this, Gordon. Blood & Chocolate is one of my top three Costello favorites, the other two being This Year’s Model and whichever happens to be my third favorite this week.

  • Vern Halen

    Tokyo Storm Warning is a great tune from B&C too. I liked this way better than King of America. In fact, although there have been nice moments throughout his career, this for me might be the last great Elvis album.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Lisa–thanks for the comment. I also have a revolving door of favorites, usually with This Year’s Model and Armed Forces (which share in a 6-way tie for #1 best LP ever from anyone), but also B&C Get Happy and Trust edge their way in, too.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Vern–don’t give up hope: just think what’ll happen if EC & Diana Krall get divored–there will no doubt be a “really, really pissed-off divorcees’ version of Blood and Chocolate” (not that I wish this prospect on them)

    I also have an appreciation for much of his more recent more-tangential projects, but there’s some good high fueled tracks from the inconsistent “When I Was Cruel” and “Brutal Youth.” You are right about “Blood” vs. “King”–though there are some choice cuts on King, I’m more apt to grab Blood and Chocolate when I’m in the mood for some older works. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://www.mrstsphoto.com Andy

    B&C is the closing of the door on the “angry” Elvis years. But to say that the years after this have been lacking is just not paying attention. While most post 1986 albums have tunes that are not on par with his greatest works, the music is 99% better than most musicians output. Albums like Spike, The Juliet Letters, Brutal Youth and even last years The Delivery Man give me as much pleasure as his earlier songs.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Andy–you touched upon the most truthful statement that I shoud’ve mentioned: even the most lacking of EC’s songs is considerably better than the best of most other artists. Thanks.

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