After churning out an incredible run of records, Elvis Costello entered a bit of a shit period. He could still be counted on for hits (“Everyday I Write the Book” from the uneven Punch the Clock, for example), but his albums weren’t so solid anymore. Blame it on him going country on Almost Blue. Blame it on getting older and running out of songs. Blame it on that time he kinda, sorta, maybe used “the n word” and made everyone feel uncomfortable. Regardless, like a lot of ’70s luminaries, Costello got a little lost in the ’80s.
And then there came bursting forth a flurry of creative fervor. King of America was great; Blood & Chocolate is even better. Here was the master tunesmith in his second prime. Blood & Chocolate has a warm, rustic feel to it, owing to its interest in acoustic instruments and live recording. For an ’80s record, it sounds remarkably unproduced. The album announces itself with “Uncomplicated.” Costello was well beyond his angry young man phase, but “Uncomplicated” still packs a lot of muscle and bile. It might be slower, but hot dang can it get heads a-bobbing. “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” though, is classic Costello: Incredibly catchy, but solidly bitter. Lines like “He knows what you want and what you don’t allow / And I hope you’re happy now” drip with sarcasm and resentment, especially with the capper, “I knew then what I know now / I never loved you anyhow / And I hope you’re happy now.”
There’s little time to consider “I Hope You’re Happy Now” before “Tokyo Storm Warning” kicks in. That one’s a mildly psychedelic stomper with plenty of room to rock before the gentle pop song “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” comes in. In a way, it’s the best song on the record if for no other reason than it contains one of my favorite couplets of all time: “He’s contemplating murder again / He must be in love.” The gently rising outro helps too, though. That song is delicate but beautiful. “I Want You” shifts the yearning to the first person, but it’s a little bit of a clunker.
The record’s second half charges things back up, if only for a while. “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” is a blues rocker; “Blue Chair” is power pop; both are great. “Battered Old Bird” is another a bitter piano track. Blood & Chocolate is a lot of things. On some tracks, it’s a return to early Costello’s hard charged literate punk. Sometimes it combines that with the pop sensibilities Costello cultivated over the years. And sometimes it’s all three, like on “Poor Napoleon.” This one’s a self-loathing break-up tune (Costello credited himself as “Napoleon Dynamite” on the album’s back cover).
“Poor Napoleon” would be a sad way to go out, so Costello instead opts for ”Next Time Round.” Oh sure, it’s told from the point of view of an old cuckold whose cheating wife keeps taking on new lovers (“The next time round / You’ll be someone else’s baby / But I’ll be underground”), but it’s so darn catchy that it almost seems chipper. Almost. But for all the hate and despair in lyrics, and the songs in general, Blood & Chocolate remains an infectious record, full of pop ditties and clever lines. For those reasons and more, it’s a shining achievement in Costello’s vast discography.