II. King Of America/Blood And Chocolate

Elvis Costello and The Attractions

In 1986, Prince was the darling of the rock press, having ascended with 1999, crowned himself with Purple Rain and strutted his peacock feathers with Around The World In A Day. In April 1986, his royal freakness presented an amazing Beatlesque masterpiece called Parade, featuring the most interesting and unique music by a major artist since the heyday of The Beatles, The Who and The Stones some twenty years before. Elvis Costello, whether he would admit it or not today, has always been a Prince fan.

The two artists share several key things in common, the most significant being their respective massively prolific natures. Neither one has EVER stopped producing work since before they were signed to record labels, and neither shows signs of slowing down or stopping, for which a not-so-small army of cult fans is forever grateful.

By 1986, Elvis Costello was already a cult figure and hero, having jettisoned his bid for mass popularity some six years earlier in the ridiculous Columbus, Ohio Holiday Inn Drunken Ironic Battle of the Wills with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett that eventually spawned the Get Happy album in 1980. He had not stopped pumping out a record a year, however, and now there was someone new on the block doing the same thing, but selling far more records and getting far more praise for doing so. This had to have lit a fire under EC, for late ’85 found him with not one, but two records worth of material, all strong, much brilliant. So why not just make and release two records, then?

Not since the Beatles and Bob Dylan, EC’s two main touchstones, had a major artist pulled off such a coup. Not even Prince. Thus, King Of America and Blood and Chocolate, polar flip-sides of one another, but really cut from the same cloth and just presented in two wildly different ways. He would best the best of that moment and salute the best of his youth at the same time. Being the pop musical historian maverick that he is, there can be no doubt or coincidence that he knew he would do this all along, given that it was the twentieth anniversary of Blonde On Blonde and Revolver, the two records these two masterpieces are most akin to. Elvis put them both out in homage to the two most important records of that time, a time that clearly shaped and inspired him most.

King Of America is the modern update of Blonde On Blonde, from the overt use of acoustic guitar and a rink-a-dink crack band of studio cats, to the blatantly tragic/comic lyrics and scenarios of the songs. Just like Dylan’s ode to the dim, romantic dark nights of his soul, Declan (Elvis) produces a work of stunning melancholy that somehow, just like Dylan’s double set, stirs a fuck-all kind of humour, in which the narrator is given over to absurd fits of comedy in the face of deep sadness and the listener is actually soothed and entertained instead of depressed and dejected. The stuff of genius.

King Of America is about affairs, private and public, the heart of a man and the heart of a nation. State of the Union, indeed. Elvis sings of empty-headed, good-looking women getting somewhere in a society that allows them to for those very reasons; of a country where anything is possible but most people are stuck in their own hard realities with only the hint of that possibility, feeling more like a myth of the past they learned about in school than anything tangibly real in the present. Again, like Blonde On Blonde, it is a record of disillusionment and dissatisfaction, and these central themes are tenderly couched in music so REAL, so heartfelt, so AMERICAN, that they ring, provoke and unnerve. After all, he is the heir to the two greatest post-war American artists of the twentieth century, isn’t he? Even if he was born and raised English in Liverpool, Elvis Costello claimed his identity in 1986 as the direct descendent from Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. (Not to mention Johnny Cash.) By the time you reach the twin elegiac majesty of "Suit Of Lights" and "Sleep Of The Just," you know just how far America has come and how much farther it has to go. It would have been more than enough for '86.

The only criticism of the album I could offer is that it might be a little too long to sustain the appeal of that same indelible style running through all fifteen songs. It's Elvis unplugged, really, (pre-dating that MTV phenomenon by a good five years by the way!) and by track 13, the 'sameness' of the arrangements starts to tire a bit. But just a bit. The other argument is that only a major artist could pull off such a single-mindedly driven concept so stubbornly, much like what Beck accomplished so well on his own King Of America, the haunting Sea Change. But I'm not complaining. Everyone should make albums this good. Hardly anyone can.

But then in a fit of pure hysterical creativity, and to make sure that his other true lineage was preserved and represented, he tackled Revolver with a vengeance in the razor-wire sweetness of Blood and Chocolate. This one he could not have pulled off without The Attractions, because like Revolver, it is a BAND album, and needs the power and punch of a working combo that’s been through the ringer together in order to present this biting material of love, lust and loss in the correct insane manner.

Claustrophobia, desire bordering on obsession and psychosis, pathological lying, sexual dementia, fetish, freak-shows, the hypocrisy of modern society in general and at large… fear and loathing, rock and roll style, a massive masterpiece of channeled frustration, Blood and Chocolate does King Of America one better by taking the same themes and hitting them harder and deeper than before, battering them with bitter metaphor, spiteful chord changes and bludgeoning rhythms. This Year’s Model times ten. Revolver with a vengeance. The punk returns a man, having met the Godfather and not learned a goddamned thing. He’s pissed off and you’re going to hear about it. There are even moments when you’re going to dance to it as well.

"Uncomplicated" is a ‘no-brainer’ obviously, a flexing of the muscles before the heavy-weight bout begins. And it does just that with "I Hope You’re Happy Now," the greatest Merseybeat rocker never released in 1965. Is he paying tribute, or is he making fun? Or is it both? Does he love her, or does he really just hate her guts and only wants her as a sex toy? Or is that how she feels about him? It’s unclear, like lust, and it’s this erotically charged confusion that lights the way for the music and the brute force of the performances, because clearly someone as smart as Elvis, and thus everyone really, must choose to do the only thing one can do when so confused over their genitals, and that is TO ROCK AS HARD AS YOU CAN. If he can’t have her for real, he’s going to have her with every drop of Pete Thomas’s left hand on that snare drum. Every snare drum hit on Blood and Chocolate is either the sound of a slap across the face or the stroke of an angry coital thrust. And this is not friendly or loving sex either. It’s frightening and awful, full of malice, resentment and deceit, meant to punish a lover, not to soothe, please or reach them. Terrible, actually. But everyone has felt that way at one time or another. And listening to the creeping, demented "I Want You" or the exhausted, fiendish "Poor Napoleon" or the perverse masterstroke that is "Crimes Of Paris" is far better and far more healthy a thing to do than to take those kinds of feelings out on someone for real. Hence the greatness of Rock and Roll Music and the genius of Elvis Costello. It ain’t pretty, but it gets the job done. Two records for the price of one. A banner year, a banner year.


When you're over me, there's no one above you.