While most rock fans have met up with Elvis Costello through his four U.S. albums, the more dedicated have expanded their acquaintance with a bewildering array of Costello material: English and American singles on a variety of labels, as well as EPs, promotional records, picture-discs and even special-edition free records.
Now, to fill the gap between regular studio releases, Columbia Records has swept up this debris, tossed in a couple of unreleased cuts and come up with Taking Liberties. It's a measure of Costello's artistry that the 20-song album is as potent in its diversity and eccentricity as his "official" LPs have been in their focused intensity.
The material on Taking Liberties can be seen as tracks that wouldn't quite fit on any of the other albums, but were too good to keep out of circulation. Crowd them onto a 12-inch disc and you get: a highly informal tone, a sense of process rather than product, some instances of striking musical experimentation, a broad variety of styles and voices. It's Costello at his most candid and idiosyncratic.
How idiosyncratic is that? Take the album's version of "Clowntime Is Over." On Get Happy!!, Costello's other 20-song album of 1980, it's a polished pop song with a firm beat and a catchy, Dylanish organ riff. In this alternate treatment, slowed down to a rough, blues-tinged ballad, Costello seems to be grappling with the song, feeling out its shape and direction. If his encounter with the lyric leads to some overstatement, the rawness and spontaneity make it an inescapably cathartic interpretation.
This unfinished quality is not representative of the album, most of whose songs are fully produced and developed.
Still, Taking Liberties contains more elements of surprise than you'd find on a factory-built LP: The swirly, gurgling arrangement of "Hoover Factory" (itself one of Costello's more offbeat and poignant compositions) suddenly — whimsically — winds down and unravels before your ears; his choppy guitar hook folds into a dissonant duet with the pinched, snake-charmer organ in "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"; "Wednesday Week" changes in midstream from feverish soul shuffle to bouncy British pop.
In Costello country, things are always stormy and tumultuous (or about to become so), and the emotional contortions of his characters find full realization in his vocals. His singing is consistently attuned to the lyrics' contours, whether sneaking through the music's holes or riding its surge. He does the latter in "Big Tears," where the Attractions (with the Clash's Mick Jones on lead guitar) push him into a ragged, vehement shout as he demands, "Who's been taken in, you or me?"
Costello's bravado phrasing is epitomized in "Radio Sweetheart," in which he spirals precipitously toward the end of a limb, extending the verse's final line beyond its normal measure before retreating to the snug chorus. Elsewhere, the cracks and dips, the attacks and retreats, the murmurs and the sneers comprise an unmatched vocal arsenal.
Thematically, Costello covers his established territory, illuminating the knotty side of romance — the treacheries and uneasy alliances, the manipulations and conspiracies, the hard bargains and reluctant surrenders. He also branches into cryptic social commentary in "Night Rally," a vague but haunting evocation of corporate fascism.
There's a lot more to digest through the course of the 20 songs; it's an album sure to keep you involved till the next one arrives. The only question remaining is why Costello is still reviled in some quarters as a standard-bearer of radical music when his sound is so conventionally accessible, even in the unconventional framework of Taking Liberties. Ironist that he is, he probably appreciates the humor of the dilemma.