With the release of Blood & Chocolate, Eivis Costello’s credibility problem matches that of Neil Young. Earlier this year, Elvis announced that he was returning to his given name of Declan MacManus to “divorce myself” from the snarling reputation of Elvis Costello. He dismissed his previous album Goodbye Cruel World, recorded with his perennial band, the Attractions, as “a waste” and “a load of wank,” and proclaimed an era of New Sincerity by recording the warmer, less inscrutable King of America with a pickup band of session veterans. This new guise lasted about as long as one of David Bowie’s haircuts. On this album, his thirteenth in nine years, he reclaims the Costello name, and reunites with the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe, who guided Elvis’s first six albums. The return isn’t merely nominal: Blood & Chocolate recalls the venom of This Year’s Model and the artiness of Imperial Bedroom, but the result is as tentative as Trust.
Costello’s earlier forays into country, soul and psychedelia were probably inevitable, given his and the Attractions’ mastery of pop forms, and although some will see Blood & Chocolate as a return to basics, similar to Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, Costello is still exploring an alternative to pop. The spiteful bashing of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” could be an outtake from 1978, but the Attractions don’t match the hook-a-rama of their first efforts (keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas sound almost harnessed). “Uncomplicated” is ruined by psychedelic clutter and punkish clatter, the latter in the form of Costello’s awful guitar playing. Several songs have sudden, incidental sonic details, and the last part of side two is almost impenetrable. This is an odd turn, since Lowe used to be the most unaffected producer in pop. But it suggests that even though Costello has abandoned the stylistic experiments of recent years, he still doesn’t have complete confidence in the songs. The annoyingly breathy oversinging that peaked on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” from King of America also continues here, providing a redundant emphasis to the grim cityscape of “Battered Old Bird.” Not since Phoebe Snow has a singer puffed so much breath into each syllable.
For all the signature wit and wordplay of Costello’s lyrics, the songs are too frequently glib or sketchy. His reliance on one-liners continues on “Uncomplicated,” in which he sings, “When you’re over me/There’s no one above you.” His attempted tour de force, “Tokyo Storm Warning,” is a grisly dispatch — it sounds like the young Dylan singing with Iron Butterfly — that reports from Alabama, the Falklands and Japan, but unites the bloody images only with the observation that “death wears a big hat.” And although no one else could reveal the lyrical link between George Jones and the Smiths, as Costello does in the midnight melodrama of “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head,” a psychological miniature like “Blue Chair” is just another addition to his long resumé of songs full of guilt and bile.
The best song on Blood & Chocolate is “I Want You,” the record’s one pure invention, and as good a performance as Costello has ever recorded. Beginning with the simple emotion of the title, Elvis unblinkingly adds jealousy, malice, desperation and all the other facets of desire, until his confession ranges beyond obsession and into danger. It’s here that Costello reclaims the stunning rush of his first releases by trading on the tension between his spiteful and sincere modes. Like so many of the characters on his new album, Elvis Costello seems to be circling his possibilities, hiding a fear of the future behind an infatuation with the past.