Though much of this 20-song collection will already be familiar to rabid Costello-philes (i.e. those willing to fork the bucks for the British import singles that fill up a significant portion of this stack o' tracks), Taking Liberties is pretty handy to have around.
A smartly package survey of the El's career, this compilation of B-sides, unreleased tunes, and new versions of old songs, many scarcely available in America, is more than just an odds and sods assortment.
True, there's a dud or two. "Dr. Luther's Assistant" needs more than just a droning bass and breathy vocals to outlive its obscure lyric scheme. Yet, for all its variety and experimentation, Taking Liberties remains consistent, with songs from each stage of Costello's song-writing phases.
"Big Tears," "Night Rally" and "Tiny Steps" hark from the This Year's Model sessions and find E.C. as obsessed and paranoid as ever, swiping riffs from Buddy Holly and The Animals and making them his own. Anger and dread combine into one pointing forefinger that leaps off the vinyl.
Two LPs later, of course, that fury has been submerged rather than buoyed by the sound of Nick Lowe's classically pure pop production. Remarkably, Elvis is as subtle a crooner as he is a bug-eyed, jerk-kneed, rocker. It's a side only lately seen revealed ("Riot Act" or "Motel Matches" from Get Happy) but which becomes pleasantly revealing on laid tracks of "Black and White World" and "Clowntime is Over." Those two songs were hardly notable at all on his last album but here they become damn near touching. Listen to the Attractions harmonize especially on a line like "When I was just a boy" from the slowed-down, acoustic-based "B&W World" and you'll swear they were trained in an Anglican choir.
And who else could turn a kitsch-classic like Rodger's and Hart's lachrymose "My Funny Valentine" into something humorous, affecting, and wonderful — and make a roomful of American kids play it 20 times in a row? (it's true, I was there.)
Not Bruce Springsteen.
The albums only other cover, Van McCoy's marvelous "Getting Mighty Crowded" is a soulful, spirited groover in the lost love/don't breakin' my heart mood of "I Stand Accused." A cross between Anglo lust and Miami soul.
But (surprise) it takes good 'ol, misery-an'-gin washed American country music to give Costello his best moment.
Copied first by Rachel ("I'm 18") Sweet, and later certified authentic in a heart-wrenching duet with EC and George Jones, "Stranger in the House" is pitch-perfect songwriting. it's so sharp a piece of cross-cultural assimilation it belongs on the juke at the Windjammer, right next to Sissy Spacek's "Honkv Tonk Girl."
Kissin'-cousin' to Get Happy's "Motel Matches," "Stranger's" whiny steel guitar and cocktail piano can't be matched by lines like this:
"This never was one of the great romances / but I thought you'd always have those young girl's eyes / But now they look in tired and bitter glances / At the ghost of man walking `round in my disguise."
By the time he gets around to looking for a number on his keychain "cause it feels more like a motel every day" the pathos is dripping like sweat from Elvis' suitably emotional performance.
That's the high point, and it's somewhere in the last ten minutes of side one. But there's still plenty of fine moments left, enough to prove that Elvis Costello is not only prolific and talented, but more versatile than you ever imagined.
There's just one question left, which won't be answered 'til January when Magnum Opus #5 comes out.
Just how many songs can you pack on an album?