Released last week with a minimum of fanfare or publicity, Elvis Costello's new Taking Liberties LP is not a major artistic statement. This compilation of B-sides, British album tracks and unreleased originals could be better described as a sort of footnote to an always turbulent, unpredictable career. Do not, however, take this proclamation the wrong way; the record is still chock full of good things that any Elvis fan should certainly own, provided he doesn't own them already. It is interesting to watch Elvis evolve from a conventional, if somewhat surreal, country-rock artist, ("Radio Sweetheart") into a powerful, evocative, singer/songwriter of driving, streamlined homilies ("Big Tears"), to a sly somewhat reserved commentator on social decay ("Hoover Factory"). At each step along the away, his voice grows in nuance and insinuation. The 1980 Costello can imply as much with a whisper as the bleating crooner of "Sweetheart" could say in an entire song.
Taking Liberties employs the same format as its predecessor, Get Happy, 20 songs jammed onto a single record, overwhelming us with more Elvis than we can seemingly assimilate in a single sitting. Compared to the breakneck pace of these records, Armed Forces seems like some sort of an EP. And yet, by retaining his brevity, Costello keeps from growing tedious or repetitive. "Girls Talk," is a marvelous example of the restraint that characterizes much of his later work, economically trimming away the frantic enthusiasm of Dave Edmunds' version for a more serious and effective reading. Prodded incessantly by the pulsating rhythym section of Bruce and Pete Thomas, this cut is a fine illustration of the effectiveness of spareness and understatement. Costello's voice unlocks all of the sexual demons suffocated by Linda Ronstadt's pathetic attempt of a year ago.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the outtakes from the This Year's Model sessions. Here, Elvis works effectively in a different style. The production on these songs ("I Don't To Go To Chelsea," "Tiny Steps," etc.) is gloriously extravagant and overpowering. These are some of Elvis' most superbly structured pieces. and their choruses invariable erupt in climaxes of vocal and instrumental firepower. Elvis' superb sneering is in its rarest form ("Tiny steps, almost real / Tiny fingers, you can almost feel..."), oozing all over lyrics that rip with incisive intelligence. If today's Elvis gives one the feeling that he knows, but isn't telling, this Elvis was more than prepared to let us have the truth, and nothing but the truth — with both barrels. "Night Rally" is a bitter condemnation of British Fascism, and "Chelsea" explodes the vices of the British jet set with shocking nonchalance ("It does not move me / Even though I've seen the movie /...I don't want to go to Chelsea"). This is Elvis at his cathartic peak, not yet old enough or "wise" enough to sec the virtues of silence, the archetypal angry young man.
The most basic flaw of the album is its failure to program the songs in any coherent order. While this crazy-quilt arrangement serves the purpose of demonstrating Elvis' versatility (as if any fan really needs to be convinced), this is hardly justifies placing "Night Rally," "Stranger in the House," and "Clowntime is Over" in consecutive slots. And if this jumble of styles isn't confusing enough for you, how about the juxtaposition of the psychodrama of "Talking in the Dark" and the simplicity of "Radio Sweetheart?" (The album's liner notes, written in the most hilarious strain of music industry corporate-speak, merely accentuate the problem.)
Nevertheless, there are many moments of brilliance on this record. in which we can see Elvis' distinctly paranoid, mildly scizophrenic, intensely misogynous persona developing. "Stranger in the House" provides a startling example of this artistic scizophrenia. Costello croons lyrics that tell of this stranger who invades the singer's marriage, continually adding clues to the puzzle until we realize that this "stranger" is Costello himself, unsure of even his own identity. The song's music also demonstrates this eerie dichotomy; the emotional tempest embodied in the lyrics is accompanied not by a tense, stormy electronic background, but a plain, run-of-the-mill country arrangement. It's a song that gets a little more scary each time I listen to it.
No less chilling is the more recent "Hoover Factory," in which Elvis, in hushed, almost defeated tones, gushes on the factory's beauty. He seems to have finally succumbed to the brainwashing of our technological society. and lost all sight of the dangers technology holds. "It's not a matter of life and death / What is?" He drones, "It doesn't matter if I take another breath / Who cares?" The song's gentle backing seduces the listener into somnambulent sympathy with Costello's views, a perfect musical analogue to the tale; a tale of surrender to the erosion of feelings and emotions that Costello has always warned us about. Now, everyone who wasn't fortunate enough to pick up a copy of the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong bootleg can be chilled by this minor gem.
Taking Liberties reminds me of the Who's Odds and Sods, another anthology composed of songs from the band's career that were more often heard about than heard. Don't look to either of these records for continuity, theme, or even a common mood. But like Odds and Sods, Taking Liberties is always good, and it contains more-than-occasional moments of excellence. This, certainly, is more than can be said of many carefully crafted records by inferior artists. Each piece reveals a fragment of a complex, creative mind. And as anyone who has ever struggled through Homer or Eliot can attest, you really just can't understand any real work of art without the footnotes.