COSTELLO REDUX: MIXING BLOOD, CHOCOLATE AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
If you were a fan of Elvis Costello’s late-'70s albums, from “My Aim Is True” through “Armed Forces,” the new “Blood and Chocolate” is the LP you’ve been waiting seven years for him to deliver.
In those early collections, the Englishman established himself as one of rock’s most compelling songwriters: His clever, seductive wordplay would have caught the ear of Cole Porter, and his sharp-witted bite might even cause Bob Dylan to think twice about getting into a verbal showdown with him.
But Costello stumbled in slight, subtle ways after “Armed Forces.” While continuing to do frequently excellent work, he tended to put out so many albums and move in so many different directions that even his most loyal fans were sometimes puzzled or exasperated.
That’s why “Blood and Chocolate” is such cause for celebration. It steps forward with the same consistency, passion, intensity and unbridled arrogance as “Armed Forces.”
In fact, the album revives Costello’s artistic glow so commandingly that I checked with his record company to make sure these weren’t leftover tracks from the “Armed Forces” days. With Costello, you never take anything for granted.
“You think it’s over now / But this is only the beginning,” Costello declares at the beginning of the album--and the line could well refer to the songwriter’s career.
After bulldozing his way into the Top 10 with “Armed Forces,” Costello began a series of odd career twists--all in the name of artistic independence. That’s a phrase you have to be wary of in pop music. It can be a badge of honor or a cop-out.
Critics encourage artists to explore their own instincts rather than follow formulas. Yet Costello’s sometimes peculiar path made him seem arbitrary, stubborn, selfish, even somewhat perverse.
You can imagine what his record company thought as sales fell back below the 500,000 mark--hitting a bottom of about 50,000 for “Almost Blue,” his 1981 country album.
But Costello recognized after “Armed Forces” that an artist must control the pace. If you ignore the pressures too long, you may end up a victim. If you cave in to pressures, you may sacrifice your art. In his own way, Costello has been battling the last seven years for his music and his survival.
Costello, who begins a unique five-night engagement Wednesday at the Beverly Theatre where he’ll appear with different musicians each night, wasn’t a card-carrying member of the late-'70s punk uprising in Britain. But he arrived on the scene at about the same time--and he shared the punks’ contempt for the record industry. Costello had seen many of his own pop and rock heroes lose their integrity and purpose--and he detested the way record companies treated music like product.
Costello, 32, seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He shunned interviews, and he walked off stage one night at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium during his second U.S. tour because he thought the audience was missing the point of his songs. At the same time, he began to be seduced by the rock-star trappings that he once despised. That frightened and appalled him.
“I think I was definitely beginning to lose control of things,” Costello once said, looking back on the “Armed Forces” stage.
“It’s too personal to go into all of it, but I will say I made several wrong turns in succession around the time of (that) album. I found myself getting farther and farther from what I started out to be and moving toward all the things I hated.”
Among the things Costello disliked about himself during that period was his cynicism, which he saw throughout the music on “Armed Forces.” He saw himself being trapped by the angry-young-man image that he first exploited--and feared that he was becoming a caricature.
In turning away from the tenaciousness and confrontation of “Armed Forces,” he was, in effect, stalling for time. He wanted to find a more comfortable way to relate to the pop world. The title of his next album seemed to be a message to himself: “Get Happy.”
It’s not that Costello hasn’t written gripping songs since “Armed Forces,” but nothing has exhibited the sheer rock ‘n’ roll passion of that LP. With absolute confidence--even arrogance--it reached out to a broad audience with a fury and vision that simply demanded to be heard. Few albums have ever defined the flame of rock as well.
By contrast, there was something almost apologetic about most of Costello’s subsequent collections--as if he were reluctant to impose his will on the listener.
Looking back on his work, you can see how several of Costello’s album titles serve as public statements of attitude and intent. “Get Happy” was an attempt to be more personable. He even recorded an old Sam & Dave song whose title seemed to mock his own infallibility: “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.”
“Taking Liberties” was a sidestep. Released only months after “Get Happy,” it was little more than a cleaning of the cupboards: 20 songs, including previously unreleased material, rare “B” sides, English album cuts and surprising remakes such as “My Funny Valentine.”
Returning to his more traditional style in 1981, Costello released “Trust.” Despite a few noteworthy tracks, the album now seems timid and poorly focused.
The story with “Almost Blue” wasn’t its title, but its genre: country music. Costello was disillusioned with his own material, which he felt had become too precious. He wanted something simple, direct and, in some ways, universal.
A man of extremes, he then returned with his most sophisticated and daring work. “Imperial Bedroom” topped the Village Voice critics’ poll in 1983, finishing ahead of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and Prince’s “1999.”
But it didn’t regain the audience he enjoyed with “Armed Forces.” In fact, the album seemed to ignore the challenge of reaching a mainstream audience. Uncertain now, he made tentative overtures toward a more accessible direction in an album whose title underscored its workmanlike attitude: “Punch the Clock.” His next LP was probably his least inspired. Again, its title suggested Costello’s own glumness: “Goodbye Cruel World.”
Costello began regaining his spirit in the studio early this year with “King of America,” an album produced by T-Bone Burnett that focused on the American rock, country and blues influences that have long been underlying features in his work.
Privately, Costello was going through a liberating period. His marriage had failed and he was in love with Cait O’Riordan, a bassist and singer with the Pogues, an English-Irish band. Equally significantly, he set aside the Costello tag and returned to his own name: Declan Patrick MacManus. He still employs that name in the songwriting credits on the new LP, but uses Costello on the title for greater consumer recognition.
Rejuvenated, Costello returned to Britain and recorded with his old band, the Attractions, and Nick Lowe, who produced “Armed Forces.”
Costello kicks off “Blood and Chocolate,” which is due in stores Monday, with the ironic wordplay that has long been one of his trademarks. The song’s title is “Uncomplicated,” but the situation described in the song--as well as Costello’s music--reflects the complexities of life.
One of the album’s most absorbing moments, “Tokyo Storm Warning,” is an intoxicating series of contrasting images that invite--or possibly defy--the listener to find order and balance among the confusion and chaos. Even the album’s title underscores the way things are often far different from their appearances: In some settings, blood and chocolate look the same.
The music in the album returns in places to the captivating and confident, organ-and-guitar-accented swirl of “Armed Forces.” Yet it also includes softer--though hardly less intense--acoustic passages.
Costello shows he can still hand out romantic put-downs (“I Hope You’re Happy Now”) and grapple with obsession (I Want You”). He also works in skepticism: “You say that your love lasts forever when you know the night is just hours.”
One of the album’s central themes is man’s capacity to endure. There are people and situations in “Blood and Chocolate” as dark, despairing and hopeless as those in Springsteen’s “Nebraska.” Still, life goes on.
The real horror, Costello suggests, is in not facing the truth.
At one point, he declares: “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.”
The “Blood and Chocolate” album title may not tell us much about Costello’s attitude these days, but there is plenty of exposition in the songs themselves. In fact, Costello’s artistic pulse is so alive again that the appropriate subtitle may be “Welcome Back.”