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Double disk re-issue of Costello's caustic classic.
on 16 March 2006
Elvis Costello once described the sound of Blood & Chocolate as a "p*ssed-off divorcee's take on the territory of This Year's Mode", which makes a lot of sense. The album came out of a great period of change for Costello, with relationships between himself and his long-term band the Attractions breaking down, his first marriage breaking up and a few years of alcoholism and personal failure/professional compromise finally manifesting itself in the feelings of pain, paranoia, guilt and obsession that are expressed on this album.
The overall sound of Blood & Chocolate is more volatile than anything Costello had done before (or since?), with the music being stripped down and spiked with distortion to create something that is much more post-punk than the pub-rock of My Aim is True, This Years Model and Trust. This is evident right from the start, with the industrial thrash of Uncomplicated, in which Costello takes a repetitive song structure and lyrics that are more of a chant, and bashes through it with his guitar resonating with drones of angular feedback. On top of this, we have the jagged rhythm section, with the clamouring percussion of Pete Thomas propelling the song forward, whilst the bass work from that other Thomas, Bruce, keeps the whole song from falling apart into a mess of aggravated guitar work and those pained, over-emotive vocals. The songs here are filled with Costello's lyrical wit and imagination, but there are darker nods to guilt, obsession and self-persecution. Even a "pop song" like I Hope You're Happy Now manages to overflow with angst and bile directed towards the new partner of a former lover ("he's acting innocent and proud still we know what he's after / like a matador with his pork-sword while we all die of laughter / in his turquoise pyjamas and his motorcycle hat / I hope you're happy now... / because you'll soon put paid to that"), setting the template for subsequent songs like the sugar-coated double-punch of Poor Napoleon and Next Time Round.
The songs on the album generally switch between loud and raucous songs like the opening Uncomplicated, the stream-of-conscious scream of Tokyo Storm Warning, and the blistering, blues referencing Honey are You Straight or are You Blind?, with more acidic pop songs like the aforementioned I Hope You're Happy Now, Crimes of Paris and Poor Napoleon. All of the songs are exceptional, featuring jagged arrangements, snarling vocals and the kind of lyrics that fall somewhere between the pop misanthropy of Mark E. Smith, Luke Haines, Kevin Rowland (circa Don't Stand Me Down) and Van Morrison (at his most self-pitying). Tokyo Storm Warning for example has a repetitive rhythm that makes great use of Steve Nieve, and some of EC's most imaginative lyrics, which take on the form of a surreal ballad that moves from one bizarre vignette to another... featuring astounding images like "the sky fell over cheap Korean, monster-movie scenery / and spilled into the reservoir of the crushed capsule hotel / between the Disney abattoir, and the chemical refinery / I knew I was in trouble, but I thought I was in hell" and featuring that great masked refrain; "what do we care... if the world is a joke?".
Probably the most famous song on the album is the caustic confessional, I Want You, which is the only song I know of that truly captures the dark side of relationship disillusionment, obsession and heartbreak. The song starts of nice enough, with Costello loosely picking an acoustic guitar, singing trite sweet-nothings like "oh my baby, baby... / I love you more than I can tell / I don't think I can live without you / and I know that I never will", before a tremolo tainted key-change erupts and the electric guitar comes in backed only by a hint of percussion and the creeping organ-refrain that wells ominously in the background throughout. Costello's vocals are straight out of a Hammer horror film here, as his voice cracks and wavers as he spits out lyrics like "it's the stupid detains that my heart is breaking for / it's the way your shoulders shake and what they're shaking for / it's knowing that he knows you know after only guessing / it's the thought of him undressing you... or you undressing" before intoning the title refrain and breaking loose with a two-note guitar solo!!
I Want You is really the heart of the album and the song that best defines what the album is about. Costello has said that the title of the album is indicative of both the style and content of the record as a whole, with Blood & Chocolate suggesting something that is both violent and sweet, or pleasurable and repulsive in equal amounts!! These statements are true and are certainly valid when attached to songs like Uncomplicated, Tokyo Storm Warning, I Want You and the great (sort of) ballad, Battered Old Bird. Here, Costello takes images and scenarios from his childhood and crafts a dark song that brims with surreal horror-film imagery and moments of warm regret. My favourite verse is probably the darkest, with Costello giving a run down of the inhabitants of his flat-block, with Costello singing; "on the second floor there are two old maids / with each one wishing that the other was afraid / and next door to them lives a man so mild / till he chopped off the head of a visitor's child / ...he danced upon the bonfire / swallowed sleeping pills like dreams / with a bottle of sweet sherry that / everything redeems".
The album was a big influence on the early sound of Radiohead, with Thom Yorke citing both Blood & Chocolate and King of America as an influence on the writing of The Bends and elements of OK Computer (Electioneering springs to mind), whilst Luke Haines nodded to the abrasive guitar work, over-emotive vocals and minimal production as an influence on The Auteurs' album, After Murder Park. Blood & Chocolate, here expanded with an extra disk of related material and sleeve-notes, is one of Costello's key albums and remains, perhaps, my personal favourite Elvis Costello album, ever (...though there are several other contenders!!).