Taking Liberties is Elvis Costello's fifth American album release. I call it that because this album is basically a compilation of Elvis' import singles, with a few previously unreleased tunes and couple of old-favorite re-works to round out the package. Taking Liberties is also an eagerly awaited and rather surprising Costello album which both pleases the long-time fan and helps to introduce newer fans to some of Elvis' best tunes.
One of the few problems I had with this album is that, like Get Happy, there is too much music to absorb at one sitting. There are twenty songs on this with lengths ranging between one and one-half and three and one-half minutes. The first tune, "Clean Money." is one of Elvis' better rocking tunes and it contains a Beatles-type harmony. The line "Won't take my love for tender" and the familiar yell of "Hey," also heard on "Pump It Up," make this song reminiscent of Elvis' earlier tunes. "Girls Talk," an Elvis original that has since been re-done by Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt, has a very haunting and mysterious reverb added to Elvis' voice, and although this makes the song interesting, it does take away from the harmonic qualities provided on the Edmunds version. "Talking in the Dark" begins with an organ pattern similar to ones found on Armed Forces. It also contains an example of his sexual frustration lyrics, found on such lines as "Without you I miss talking in the dark."
"Radio Sweetheart" is a very fine and unique Elvis song. Beginning with a fade in acoustic guitar, this catchy, melodic tune with a country twang tells the song of a long distance relationship made more prominent by a song on the radio. The funny thing about this song is that it's almost too melodic for Elvis Costello. One of the more prominent songs on side one is "Black and White World." This is a new, slower version of the song Elvis put on Get Happy. This version is just as good if not better than its faster counterpart, and it is highlighted by good harmony, a mysterious bass pattern, and a sweet Elvis vocal (if possible). The next number, "Big Tears," is significant only in Elvis' voice, crying accusations in a punishing manner. Aside from this, "Big Tears" sounds like a typical song from This Year's Model. Although many of these tunes are unique in their own right, the major feeling I was getting while listening to this album was that I've heard most of these songs (with slight variations) before. This is both a plus and a minus for the album; a minus for a nearly total lack of anything new, and a plus for this album which really represents a summary for Costello's career to date.
"Just a Memory" is very soft and tender in tune, but as anti-relationship and anti-women in lyric as always. This overly short song kept the hatred theme going too much for it to be considered a worthwhile addition to this collection. However, the next song, "Night Rally" represents what Taking Liberties is all about. It is a great rocker written in true Elvis tradition, complete with shifting chord structures and better than usual thought provoking lyrics. This number is proof that Costello plans to give the listener a small taste of each number, whilst not letting you get too full to hear another song. Here the problem is that with all these "little" songs, one doesn't get too much chance for full digestion in one listening.
After the abrupt ending of "Night Rally" follows the country-ish sound of "Stranger in the House." The love conflict is there in the lyrics but it is this country side of Elvis that comes through in true colors. It is an interesting addition from the man who was once considered a pure new waver but like the volume of this album, the new revelations of sound are very difficult to understand here. The man's versatility is more than occasionally overwhelming. The side finishes with a re-done, slowed-up "Clowntime is Over" which doesn't succeed nearly as much as "Black and White World."
The second side begins with a good interpretation of a Van McCoy soul tune called "Getting Mighty Crowded," which further shows the versatility of Elvis' voice in both lead and backing vocals. One thing Costello is great at is playing his lead voice off against his own voice in the background. "Tiny Steps" shows something else Elvis is great at — playing good out'n'out rock 'n' roll. It was this number more than anything else which made me realize the futility of making generalizations about Costello. Although his lyrics occasionally seem annoying when too much of one theme is represented, I find it hard to belittle his frequent spurts of genius. Lyrics like "Tiny steps, almost real / Tiny fingers you almost feel," as well as those in the next number "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea." ("I don't want to check her pulse / I don't want nobody else") force me to listen to him with more than one attitude.
Two of the more prominent songs on this half are "Sunday's Best" and "Wednesday Week." The first contains some merry-go-round music, making it just as strange as the words Elvis puts behind them. The second tune happens to be nothing short of the most incredible song I've heard on a record. "Wednesday Week" is just over two minutes long, and in that time period, Costello puts two drastically different sounding songs, each being a part of the number itself. Aside from that, "My Funny Valentine" is significant only in Elvis' haunting voice in the one and one-half minute remake of the Rodgers and Hart tune. This song was originally released as a red-colored promotion single that made last year's Valentine's Day interesting (the single can now be found selling for as much as $50 a shot).
With Taking Liberties, one finds that Elvis Costello and CBS both realize that is is about time they started selling these older recordings to the American public — and rightfully so. This record represents some of Elvis very best tunes as well as being a fair survey of his career to date. This might seem like a cheap shot album to some, but to me, it just seems that after about four years in the business, Elvis Costello has finally decided to take some liberties.