Elvis Costello's odd tracks and nerve ends, as exposed on Taking Liberties, are evidence not only of his notoriously bitter stance, but of a fierce, wide-ranging musical intelligence. His sheer prolificity amazes: five albums in just over three years, twenty cuts apiece on Get Happy!! and this package. Equally remarkable is the way he has melded attitude and craft, adapted elements of soul, country, and pop writing into rock that serves his own obsessions.
Taking Liberties, going from his early Stiff days to the day before yesterday, is a breathless, erratic collection: mistakes and rough drafts, throwaways, fatuous Revolver-isms like "Dr. Luther's Assistant," cool songs since Ronstadtized, cuts that reveal Costello as a canny interpreter (the rousingly claustrophobic "Getting Mighty Crowded," a resonant, moving "My Funny Valentine"), alternate takes of Get Happy!! songs, and a few neglected classics. In that last category are "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," a crucial piece of England's This Year's Model; "Tiny Steps," as uncompromised a personal attack as rock has wrought; the ominous "Night Rally"; and "Stranger in the House," where domestic displacement becomes a honky-tonk horror story.
The songs of Costello are marked as much by linguistic gymnastics and vaunted misanthropy (which fails to explain the compassion of "Talking in the Dark" or "Radio Sweetheart") as by a precision that, along with the witty use of metaphor, is a lesson learned from r&b and country influences. His band, the Attractions, goes back to tightly wound models like Booker T.'s MG's for inspiration, makes the extended solo an endangered species, and is highly responsible for Costello's desperate, compressed sound. On "Crawling to the U.S.A.," "Crowded," and "Wednesday Week" they are a spunky, garagey rock band, and Costello deserves no less.