Is Elvis Costello taking liberties with us or from us? It would seem neither for this recently released 20 song collection of cathartic vinyl reflects a newfound giving nature in the "King" of the New Wave. Taking Liberties can be seen as an open musical apology to the masses he has alienated with his recent behavior. He didn't mean to call Ray Charles that nasty name. He's very sorry he only played for 45 minutes on his last American tour. He realized that he was a bad boy to leave his wife and kids for a groupie (and now he's back). While Elvis used to be disgusted, now he's trying to amuse. He wants to get happy, but he won't get happy till he makes us get happy too. With this new disc, he does just that.
Don't misunderstand, Elvis has hardly halted his attempt at coming to terms with the entire gamut of human emotion. He continued to examine and express them in a powerful yet sensitive manner and is increasingly unconcerned with presenting an identifiable pose — a factor which has served to undermine much of the recent work of such rock institutions as the Rolling Stones and the Who. Elvis. much like Dylan, the prototypical rock 'n' roll chameleon, avoids stylization through musical and lyrical evolution. Each new album, single. and song comes from an entirely independent inner world.
This newest world is in actuality not all that new. Taking Liberties is the first Elvis Costello retrospective — a musical smorgasbord of material either previously unavailable or available only on import albums and singles. Besides its obvious economic advantages for both artist and fan, this record is worthwhile in much the same way as were The Beatles Again and the Who's Odds and Sods. The listener is afforded the opportunity to listen to songs from various stages of an artist's career without being subjected to the often repellent and distracting nature of a "Best Of" collection.
To paraphrase Shakespeare. "the song's the thing." and the material on Taking Liberties is for the most part up to Elvis' high standards. It is a genuine pleasure to hear his own versions of tunes he lent out to other recording acts, as is the case with "Girls Talk" and "Talking in the Dark." Both songs were covered, or more appropriately. trampled by Linda Ronstadt, and the former was a large hit single for Elvis' personal friend and co-leader of Rockpile. Dave Edmunds. However, as with Dylan, nobody does Elvis like Elvis, since no other artist shows such love and reverence for the genre he works within.
Another remarkable track is Costello's strikingly straight and appropriate reading of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "My Funny Valentine." His restrained vocal delivery breathes new life into a number that one might think would be too much of a standard to be enjoyed. The more recently recorded "Just a Memory" also accentuates Elvis' sometimes ignored prowess as a vocalist. On "Stranger in the House," and "Radio Sweetheart," Costello shows his rarely seen country music influences off to fine effect. However, fans of his more rock-oriented sound have nothing to fear since such cuts as "(I Don't Want to go to) Chelsea," "Big Tears," and "Tiny Steps" are vintage Elvis from his "This Year's Model" period. His flirtation with rhythm and blues that surfaced most prominently on his recent Get Happy album, is seen to be yielding even better artistic results on the soulful cover of Van McCoy's "Getting Mighty Crowded."
There is simply no proper way to sum up Taking Liberties for it is itself a summary — a fond look back at three years of popular music of almost unprecedented significance. Certainly this collection has its flaws. In particular. the new interpretations of "Black and White World," and "Clowntime is Over" from Get Happy seem remarkably superfluous in comparison to the rest of this fine album.
In his delicate "Hoover Factory," Elvis sings, "It's not a matter of life and death, what is?" Ironically. it is just that sense of urgency that best defines the work of Elvis Costello. Despite his new "born-again" nice guy status, Elvis continues to take his music very seriously. We would all be best advised to follow his example.