Blood & Chocolate. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1986, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe and Colin Fairley.
IN A NUTSHELL: Often referred to as an “angry young man,” Elvis Costello has never been angrier than on this collection of 11 rough, bitter and spiteful tunes – and they sound TERRIFIC! The Attractions play loud and straight, offering little adornment, and Costello sings of the women who done him wrong and the ugliness around him, the only state his vengeful eyes can see. It’s a bit overwhelming, but the tunes are great and his vocals are, too!
I have been bobbing in a great sea of anger for months. All of America has.
You see, a giant, orange, talking turd has recently spent a year tapping into many white Americans’ hatefulness, bigotry and low self-esteem to cause a flatulescent release of their previously (mostly) un-vented anger. What were they angry about? Well, the temerity of America to elect an African American as president – twice! And this anger drove them1 to ensure that no smart-ass woman was going to follow him there2. “We’d rather have a childish business failure who is clearly lying to our faces – as long as he’s a white man,” they said. (I’d typically find links to references for all these claims, but if you’re reading this and don’t believe what I’m saying … well, my links won’t help you.) This stinky piece of shit will soon be president.
While this was happening, a large group of intellectual people who have difficulty disguising their condescension toward the less well-educated whites around them3 (but who make a bit of an effort if the dimwit in question is a person of color4) were filled with rage over the phony “journalists” on TV and interwebs and newspapers who realized that they’d get better election-year ratings and more “likes” if they pretended that debunked stories of one candidate’s email servers were the equivalent of the enormous totality of evidence that the other candidate was profoundly disturbed and unworthy of the presidency, thus keeping the race close.
The outcome of this election has also caused tremendous anger within myself. Anger at fellow whites who have now made me feel like I should apologize to every woman and every person of color and every immigrant I know or meet, or perhaps wear a sign that says, simply, “Did Not Vote for Hateful Orange Turd.” Anger at whiny, entitled “millennials” whose mommies never told them that their snowflake-specialness and wall of participation trophies wouldn’t be enough to ensure a perfect candidate ran for president every time. Anger at the entire American process which is patently undemocratic, and the Myth of the Constitution that is taught in schools, and so perpetuates the dysfunction of the system. And anger at myself for getting so angry. I really shouldn’t allow myself to get so angry that I’m in the state I am now: questioning the value of long friendships and family connections; questioning the worth of the u.s.a.5 as a place to keep my kids safe and among decent folks6; questioning whether it’s even worthwhile counting down my favorite albums7.
As a child I was taught that getting angry was a bad thing. “Well, getting mad won’t help!” my mom often told me at times when it was most unhelpful – for instance, when I thought a teacher gave me an unfair grade; or when the baseball game I was looking forward to playing in was rained out; or if someone at school said something mean to me. Each hurdle in life was to be faced with a smile, and if you couldn’t overcome a hurdle without anger, well, then it was probably better to just accept the fact that you weren’t crossing it and learn to adapt to life on this side of the hurdle. With a smile.
I would try to follow mom’s guidelines, but I still found myself getting angry in certain anger-inducing situations. And so, since I wasn’t supposed to get angry, I started feeling bad about myself for not being able to control my anger. Finally, after a game of intramural basketball (of all things) in college, I decided to change. After a particularly troubling loss, a referee told me, “You’re good, but you’d be a hell of a player if you didn’t get so angry out there. When you play angry, your game gets worse.” This sweaty, pot-bellied, middle-aged man in Sansabelt poly-stretch pants couldn’t have known, but the best way to reach me with any message is to wrap it up in flattery of my (rather spare) athletic abilities. I endeavored to learn to let stuff roll off my back, to shrug off small slights and injustices, to transform myself into the “happy-go-lucky guy.” (I recognize now how closely the “happy-go-lucky guy” mirrored my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.”)
The only problem with the “happy-go-lucky guy” is that he isn’t me! I spent 10 years ignoring anger and pretending to be “chill” about things that really upset me, while still feeling the anger rise within me, and having it burst out in weird, unexpected ways, just as it did in my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.” And then, afterwards, I’d still end up feeling guilty about it. I was right back to where I was as a child! It took a good psychotherapist and a good girlfriend and several years of living to reach the point where I am now: still unsure of how to best relate to feelings of anger, but at least conscious of them, and their effects on me. The biggest change since the “happy-go-lucky-guy” days is that I now clearly understand that the FEELINGS of anger are normal, and they are separate from, and different than, the ACTIONS of anger8. This understanding has made me, I think, a better person and has clearly made me a better parent/husband/friend than I otherwise would be.
The reason this distinction helps is that – first of all – it allows me to feel okay about being angry. Anger is normal – even the Dalai Lama himself gets angry sometimes. Secondly, when these feelings are identified as separate from the actions of anger, it allows me to ask the question, “So, what am I going to do about it?” When feelings and actions of anger are mingled, chaos reigns and solutions are not easily reached. This mingling of feelings and actions is often described as a statement of “When I get mad, I …” For example, “When I get mad, I scream at people!” “When I get mad, I break things!” “When I get mad, I stop passing to my teammates and take all the shots myself!” It gives the holder of the feelings license to act in ways that may be hard on others, or dangerous, or not conducive to winning basketball games. After all, if anger is a typical human emotion, and part of my anger is throwing a lamp at you, well, we’re all just going to have to accept a few lamps whizzing around as just part of my anger “thing.”
However, if actions are recognized as separate from the feelings of anger, this can lead to any range of actions on my part. I now have a selection of responses. I can scream and shout, I can write a letter, I can vent to a loved one, I can make some art, I can call a timeout and explain to my teammates that #40 continues to set up on the three-point line and drain his shots, and somebody (Bob, I’ll just give you a look, no need to name names in the huddle … for now) has to get on him and get a hand in his face!!!
I can write a blog post that references a human piece of shit who will be the most powerful person in the world. I can mock the ridiculous babies who voted for him. I can hug my family and keep them close. I can continue to support and work for the policies in which I believe. I can get together with my liberal friends, who – like me – have supported everything that the piece of shit stands against, and we can vent and chat and plan our actions and feel secure in the knowledge that it’s not we who are fucked up, it is the turd’s supporters. I can pity those ugly turd voters, for their hate and ignorance and childishness won’t get them what they think they want; and it won’t change who I am, or what I believe, or what I know: that – as Dr. Martin Luther King said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
And when my anger subsides, I can continue to choose love as my guiding principle. That will be the best “Fuck You” to those supporters of President Turd – because when I have reached that place I won’t even feel like I’m saying “Fuck You,” but those assholes will still think I am.
And I can listen to music. And it just so happens that my #56 album is one of the angriest albums I know: Blood & Chocolate. I didn’t plan to listen to the angriest album I own during the angriest weeks of my country’s existence since 1865, it just worked out that way – the universe has a sense of humor. Or maybe just a good sense of timing – it’s hard to find humor right now.
I’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. How I was interested in him as a young teen in the late 70s and early 80s, but never bought an album. How I saw him sing a song on a movie on TV. How I enjoyed his MTV videos, and respected his words and music, and saw him, in 1986, in one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life, but still never bought an album until the late 1990s.
By the time Blood & Chocolate came out, in 1986, I already thought of Elvis Costello as a has-been. Sometime in my freshman year of college, I had heard his remake of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and I thought “Okay, he’s done. As soon as an artist starts pilfering old hits, it signals the end of the line.” By then, songs like “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” and “Watching the Detectives“ and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding” seemed like ancient events.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, my girlfriend’s little sister announced, “Elvis Costello’s new record is called Blood & Chocolate! Isn’t that such a cool name??!” I remember thinking, “That poor kid. Doesn’t even realize he’s a has-been. She should get into a hot new band, built to last, like Night Ranger9.” However, I did think “Blood & Chocolate” was an excellent name for an album, immediately conveying the basic duality of human relationships.
Costello writes, in his autobiography of 2015, that the album was recorded while The Attractions were not getting along with each other. The band was angry about their limited participation in his most recent album, King of America. Costello was struggling with the realization that The Attractions weren’t capable of playing some of his newer songs properly. The tension was palpable. Producer Nick Lowe captured it by recording the band playing at near-concert volume, and using limited overdubs to make the sound on the record immediate and loud – like a cry of pain when you smash your thumb. In the autobiography, Costello compares the songs to “freshly inflicted wounds,” and “blurred and unfortunate Polaroids that people used to keep to document their worst desires and unhappy love affairs before we had the blessings of phone cameras.”
The tone of the album is set immediately on the clattering chords that open it, sounding almost like a cranky child banging on a guitar in frustration.
“Blood and Chocolate/I hope you’re satisfied what you’ve done,” Elvis sings on “Uncomplicated,” as the band slams their instruments again and again on a single note. “You think it’s over now/But we’ve only just begun.” The lyrics are a bit obscure, but their delivery indicates it to be about a fearful man who won’t accept the fact his girlfriend is gone. It’s simple to him – he wants her back. Keyboardist Steve Nieve plays some of his whirling organ riffs, familiar to Attractions fans, but other than that the song is really instrumentally unadorned. It’s a one note song in many ways, and that one note is anger.
The next song presents a more fiery, less smoldering anger that allows The Attractions to really shine. If there could be any doubts about the song’s theme, they are erased by the title: “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”
Elvis has always been fond of these songs with vocal-only openings. Bruce Thomas’s busy, roller-coaster baseline propels the song, and Steve Nieve’s chiming keyboards in the choruses sound really great. Drummer Pete Thomas is perfectly sloppy and wonderful. But it’s Elvis’s furious vocal delivery, spitting venom at a lover who’s found someone else, that makes the song work. He never seems to give himself easy lyrics to sing, fitting the words in very tightly within the melody, but he definitely has a sense of humor, as in the lines “He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after/Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter.” (Pork sword – heh.) The effect of the song is not unlike watching a customer ahead of you in line chew out a clerk and storm off. However, instead of feeling uncomfortable and awkward, I want to hear more.
Luckily, the next song is even better – and just as bitter. Elvis packs even more words into the melody of “Tokyo Storm Warning,” and this time their target isn’t one person.
It’s clear from reading the lyrics that the song is about the approaching end of the world, and his indifference to it. And hearing its references to the KKK10, and imagery of bleak life around the globe while the wealthy thrive11 makes me wonder if Mr. Costello had a crystal ball back in 1986 that projected 30 years forward. Once again, he fires these lyrics off with intensity, and heightening the rage is the fact that there are no breaks from singing – verse and chorus follow verse and chorus, with barely a break to catch breath. The song is reminiscent of a silly old falsetto 60s song, “Bread and Butter,” (which I first heard on a TV commercial) but the band elevates it under Nick Lowe’s wall-of-noise production. There’s a nifty backwards guitar line at the end, but other than that the song is simple, relentless fury.
It might sound like it’s all too much, all this anger, but the melodies and sound and Elvis’s charismatic voice keep it from overwhelming me. And he also has a different take on the emotion on songs like the cleverly titled “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head.”
On this track, the anger turns inward, becomes sadness. It’s a day-in-the-life of unrequited love, and its lyrics’ descriptions of that condition are reminiscent of The Beatles’ excellent Revolver track “For No One.” Musically, I really like the chord progression as the song moves from verse to chorus, for example beginning about 0:55, and at 1:14, as Steve Nieve’s organ subtly bolsters Elvis’s vocals, which are – as with every song on Blood & Chocolate – squarely front and center in the recording.
There are a few of these slower, more contemplative songs about misery and sadness on the album. “Battered Old Bird” is a slow burn of a song describing a horrible landlord and his wretched tenants. “Poor Napoleon” is a mid-tempo diatribe against love that tips its hand early with the opening lines “I can’t lie on this bed anymore/it burns my skin/You can take the truthful things you’ve said to me/And fit them on the head of a pin.”12 This album is listening perfection on those days when nothing’s going right, and fuck everybody anyway!
But there are a few respites from the rage – as there would have to be. The 60s-sounding “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” is a jaunty relief-valve of a song placed mid-album to let the listener, perhaps, dance the anger out instead of wallowing in it. “Blue Chair” has another rolling bass line to carry it, a straightforward ode to sadness with really cool vocals, especially in the last verse, when he alters the melody.
The melody ranges far and wide, and Elvis performs it brilliantly, always coming home to a sing-along chorus that references “the cigarette girl in the sizzle hot pants,” which conjures great imagery of a woman content to serve the men around her. In reading all the lyrics from the album, trying to tease out what it is that has piqued Elvis’s anger and caused it to rage so deeply and with such strength, I get the sense that much of it has to do with women who aren’t “cigarette girl”-ish enough. He’s been burned by women who don’t see their relationship in the same way he does, who’ve acted on their displeasure to seek out new romances, leaving him behind to write great songs with clever lyrics about it all. He can’t get over it. He won’t get over it. He explains it pretty clearly on one of my favorite songs ever, the emotionally haunting “I Want You.”
I first heard this song when I purchased a “Greatest Hits” album of Costello’s13. Without listening closely to the words, it sounded sort of like a love song, similar to John Lennon’s epic Abbey Road piece, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” My good friend and Beatles fanatic Dr. Dave had recently gotten engaged, so – as I often did – I decided to celebrate by sending him a CD of songs. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll put this Elvis Costello love song next to Lennon’s song, and it’ll be cool because they have the same title, which is repeated frequently throughout the piece!” Then I listened to the lyrics and realized, “This isn’t really a celebration of love …”
The song opens with an acoustic love poem, sung troubadour-style, that ends (0:48) with the word “breath” sung on an unexpected note, followed closely by a startlingly discordant chord. The song builds over the next 6 minutes, adding instruments every few lines, intensity increasing as Costello again fumes over a woman who chose to be with another man. His imagery throughout conveys with withering directness his deep feelings of hurt and, what else, anger. “It’s the stupid details 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 now after only guessing/It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.” After each sordid detail he reminds us “I want you.” It’s another vocal masterpiece, but Elvis’s guitar is nice in subtle ways as well. He makes great use of his tremolo bar, and plays a fittingly clamoring guitar solo midway through (3:21). By about five minutes, the song has dispensed all the wisdom it has (“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.”) and Elvis is left crooning against Nieve’s organ. It’s a song that always sends chills up my spine. (There is also a tremendous version that I highly recommend by list-member Fiona Apple, accompanied by Elvis himself.)
The album ends on what sounds like a happy note, “Next Time Round.”
At a minimum, the song could be considered … hopeful … perhaps. I mean, it does at least consider the possibility that there will be a “next time.” The despondency of some of the other songs is gone, but the lyrics do reveal the bitterness that seems to have become his best friend on Blood & Chocolate. There is nice harmony singing throughout, and Bruce Thomas’s bass pumps the song along. It’s an upbeat-tempo song that leaves the listener, if not happy or satisfied, at least a little less prone to smashing one’s hand through the glass in a frame around a picture of an ex.
What a wonderful, necessary and brilliant thing, this human endeavor called “art.” Imagine if all that pain and hostility and rage inside Costello were bottled up and unexpressed; or worse yet, imagine if it had been diverted to something destructive and hateful – like becoming a fraudulent Orange Turd bent on destroying the u.s.a. Instead, he took it and made something great with it. Blood & Chocolate is a reminder that anger isn’t bad, that it is part of our lives. It’s also a reminder that we should use our anger and do something constructive with it – like working against everything the stinky turd (whom most Americans did not vote for) and his cry-baby supporters stand for. I’ve started already.
“I Hope You’re Happy Now”
“Tokyo Storm Warning”
“Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”
“I Want You”
“Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?”
“Battered Old Bird”
“Crimes of Paris”
“Next Time Round”