If a record album should be anything more than a jumble of songs from a particular performer, then Elvis Costello's "new" release, Taking Liberties, is a failure. But if the greatness of individual songs makes up for the degrading presentation of the album (it is essentially a "compilation" of previously released songs), then it is a success.
Few could disagree that Elvis Costello is one of the few good contemporary pop songwriters. Every one of these tracks is meticulously constructed and, with a few exceptions, powerfully performed. He is finally emerging from beneath the ridiculous labels of "punk" (which some ignorant ones stuck on him years ago) and "New Wave" (that gargantuan and virtually meaningless label). What is now clear is that Mr. Costello is an intelligent, funny, and angry person who writes good, original songs. He is also highly offensive, but most often to those who deserve it. The album is literally packed (twenty songs, as on Get Happy, his previous 1.p.) with fine songs, from the opening cut "Clean Money," to "Ghost Train," which closes the album.
"Hoover Factory" is the best example of Elvis' recent switch in instrumental emphasis from guitar to keyboards. This humorous song about a vacuum cleaner factory is laced with electronic effects which are not nearly as boring as most electronic pop music.
His nervous, haunting version of "Girls Talk" shows that even if your friend (Dave Edmunds) dilutes your song, and your artistic antithesis (Linda Ronstadt) butchers it horribly, you can still personally do it justice.
The old Van McCoy soul number "Getting Mighty Crowded" is a lively, fun "dance tune" (and dance tunes are all the rage these days) but since it was when Van McCoy did it, why re-do it? "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" is still brilliant, but WHY RE-RELEASE IT? "Everyone is on their knees / Except the Russians and the Chinese" in "Crawling to the U.S.A.," and while criticism of America-worship is welcome, the proverb "practice what you preach" haunts the album cover with its conspicuously American phone booth.
The best cut on the album is the uncharacteristic "Just A Memory." The title tells exactly what the song is about (an old love remembered), but the twist he gives to this well-worn subject in the chorus is so surprising and beautiful that it saves the song from the unbearable predictability of The Rolling Stones, "Memory Hotel" and other "love-gone-by" songs.
Eighty-five percent of this material is previously released. The natural question to ask about a rather poorly arranged collection of re-released songs is, "Why release it?" and the obvious answer is, "to make big money for Columbia Records."
The liner notes on the back of the album are signed by (yawn) Gregg Geller, Vice President of Contemporary Music at Columbia Records. Mr. Geller spews out one of the grossest attempts at product hype ever made. Using phrases like "the irrepressible Elvis," "amazing skill," "dynamic album," "powerful, unique voice," "the fabulous Attractions" (Elvis' band), and their "fiery vigor," this corporate lackey tries to disguise the fact that these are Elvis Costello's songs, but it is not his album. Only Mike "Commander" Chapman (producer of The Knack) stands above Gregg Geller as the most obnoxious, ridiculous album cover hypist.
The usurpation of an artist's control over his own material is not funny, it is disturbing. While the title was intended to be ironic and cute, Taking Liberties accurately describes what Columbia Records, Inc. is doing by releasing this album.