Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Blood & Chocolate
Record Label: Columbia (1986) / Hip-O (2007)
Release Date: September 15, 1986
In 1986, only six months after the release of his Americana-inflected masterpiece King of America, Elvis Costello reunited with producer Nick Lowe and Costello’s original band, the Attractions, and lugged them under pain of death into the studio to record the manic, vicious album that became Blood and Chocolate. In so doing, Costello recaptured the sound of his earlier, punk records—such as This Year’s Model and his 1977 debut My Aim Is True—but took it into darker, more menacing territory. Lyrically and musically, it’s the nastiest album Costello and the Attractions ever recorded. And I mean that in the most positive way possible.
In some senses, it’s a musical retreat, a stark departure from the mostly acoustic roots-rock of King of America and the more lush, poppier productions of earlier Attractions records like Imperial Bedroom, stripping the music down to its most primitive form, its savage roots.
“Uncomplicated,” which opens the album—and which Costello claimed was originally his attempt to write a one-chord song—sets the stage for the ten songs that follow: thrashing guitar, a drumbeat accentuated by propulsive, atonal clangs, and a simple, ascending organ line while Costello sings, “You think it’s over now / But this is only the beginning.” Then there’s “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a poisonous tirade against an ex-lover, in which Costello lays on the vitriol thick while the Attractions hammer out the chords. The loping “Tokyo Storm Warning” is a demented travelogue that finds Costello in his most lyrically inventive, musically rambunctious, and vocally harsh state.
Whether Costello’s vocal technique on this record is an affectation or a byproduct of the excessive amounts of alcohol he was rumored to have been drinking during its production, it fits the mood of the album perfectly. He sneers, snarls, bleats and howls his way through the songs, slightly hoarse, though still fully capable of belting out when it suits him. A stray sigh, the breaths between couplets—note, for example, the delivery of “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”—only serve to make the songs sound more raw and aggressive—constantly teetering on the edge of madness, Costello’s vocals threaten to explode at any moment.
Songs like “I Want You” (which seems even more murderous with each listen)—the album’s mesmerizing centerpiece as well as its most restrained and sinister track—utilize this delicate balance to greatest effect. The coda of that song—as the other instruments fade out one by one, all that remains is the ghost of an organ, a drumbeat that might as well be a heart pumping blood, and Costello’s vocals—is one of the album’s creepiest and most effective moments.
The album loses momentum in its second half, containing more or less conventional pop songs bloodied up by the Attractions’ playing and the spite of Costello’s lyrics, although there are several notable highlights: the lyrically-unfathomable “Blue Chair,” the frequently raving “Battered Old Bird,” a ballad depicting the sordid lives of the denizens of a certain apartment building; “Poor Napoleon” leaves the inexplicable feeling that is was recorded in a distant French dungeon. Nevertheless, the album holds together remarkably well, by virtue of Costello’s always surprising vocal tics and musical variety.
On the album cover, a splotchily-painted, scraggly-faced, beady-eyed ape-man in hues of red and brown—labeled as “Napoleon Dynamite,” one of Costello’s many alter-ego’s during the eighties and the showman for Costello’s live performance gimmick “the Spectacular Spinning Songbook” (revitalized and now currently touring with Costello once again)—bellows out at the viewer. It’s a painting by Barney Bubbles, the late artist responsible for the artwork of several of Costello’s earlier albums, and vividly personifies the tone and feel of the music found on the album.
Blood and Chocolate—as its title implies—is an album that draws an awful lot of blood, and what little chocolate it does offer comes quite bitter. An angry, overlooked classic. Costello has never since quite managed to achieve this level of brutality on a record (following this reunion he split from the Attractions for another eight years), and it’s a testament to his enduring talent that it stands the test of time alongside his earlier, more popular releases, and still feels so vital today.