Elvis Costello's new album, Taking Liberties, could well be subtitled "Not Just Another Marketing Gimmick," because at a glance, that is what this lp appears to be. As a collection of B-sides of singles, British-released album tracks and some never-before-released material, this album seems to be an accumulation of 20 songs that were not good enough to earn a spot on any previously released album. But Elvis Costello has never issued a throw-away cut on any release bearing his name.
It turns out that Taking Liberties not only contains old Costello tunes, but also represents his latest musical evolution with a half-dozen new songs. These songs are even more of a departure than is expected with new Costello music, which is always in flux. Producer Nick Lowe has been replaced by Elvis himself, and the Attractions, Elvis' back-up band, do not play at all.
Leaving Elvis Costello alone in a recording studio leads to unusual results. The arrangements are different from those of previous albums: Costello relies on flamenco guitar, tuba, calliope and xylophone for instrumentation beneath a new relaxed, more enunciated vocal style. The lyrical songs, "Just a Memory," "Hoover Factory" and "Black and White World" are not bitter (as is some older Elvis material) but are haunting and reflective. The emphasis on acoustic instruments and the lack of a propulsive drum beat add to the mood.
It would be misleading to equate these new songs with the rock 'n' roll "(I Don't Wanna Go to) Chelsea" or "Night Rally" (which appeared on the British edition of This Year's Model); the new Costello abandons the traditional sounds of rock music that he was so forceful in reviving. This is dramatized by the formidable variety of songs on this lp. Every style of rock music Elvis has used is represented on Taking Liberties.
The record succeeds in revealing Elvis' influences. The reggae-tinged "Chelsea" and "Girl's Talk," the pure country of "Stranger in the House" and country-rock "Radio Sweetheart," the cover version of Van McCoy's "Getting Mighty Crowded," the crooning of "My Funny Valentine" and the Revolver-Rubber Soul Beatle-esque "Dr. Luther's Assistant" show Costello to be a stylistic nomad, which the more uniform sound of his previous lps has obscured.
Taking Liberties is a potpourri of Elvis Costello music that attacks rock complacency from all the disparate regions of modern music and, finally, forges new regions. A time capsule of Elvis' past and a glimpse of his future, the album is an excellent representation of what one of the most influential musicians in rock music is all about and is an outstanding collection of songs, as well.
Hear these albums reviewed on Helter Skelter, Sunday at 6 p.m. on WDUK.