Strictly speaking, Taking Liberties is not a new Elvis Costello album. Rather, it's a collection of British singles, B-sides, re-mixes, and unreleased material, none of which has appeared on any of his four previous American albums.
Critically speaking, Taking Liberties is a triumph, showcasing both the extent and diversity of Costello's considerable talent.
As the title might suggest, Elvis tries a little bit of everything here — "taking liberties" by taking a stab at just about everything (the album could just as easily have been titled A Smorgasbord of Elvis). Included are smatterings of country ("Stranger In The House"), soul ("Getting Mighty Crowded"), nightclub crooner ("Just A Memory"), and, of course, rock ("Crawling To The USA").
Even more than documenting the range of his talents, however, Taking Liberties showcases the duality of Costello's songwriting. When he wants to, Elvis can make things painfully clear: the creeping paranoia of "Dr. Luther's Assistant" or the cynical browbeating of "Big Tears", for example. But like all the great rock songwriters from Dylan on up, his lyrics frequently hint at much more than they reveal, with levels of meaning well below the surface. "Tiny Steps" and "Hoover Factory", for instance: it's almost impossible to establish what he's talking about, but that doesn't make the songs any less listenable — or compelling.
Perhaps the best reason for Taking Liberties' existence, though, is that t finally brings to American ears two of Costello's finest songs, "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Night Rally" (previously available as a British single and British B-side, respectively, or as two-thirds of a Canadian EP.)
"Chelsea", with its machine-gun guitar chords and spitfire drumming, shows Elvis positioning himself in the world. Chelsea's a world where everybody tries to be what they aren't ("They call her Natasha / When she looks like Elsie"), where success is measured in terms of personal conquests ("Photographs of fancy tricks"), where life is as fleeting as the fame that sustains it ("Capital punishment / She's last year's model"). The idea is that we all, ultimately, are heading for Chelsea — particularly those who make a career out of the public spotlight. But not Elvis ("Oh no, that's not me there / Even though I'm seemingly there").
"Night Rally" is Costello's most frightening song, a nightmare trip to a neo-Nazi rally ("I know what they're doing / But I don't want to look"). The scene itself seems almost quaint: Fireworks exploding in the sky, waves of uniformed youths chanting a little tune ("It's just the sort of catchy little melody / To get you singing in the shower"). But Costello quickly pierces the facade, reminding those who look on such gatherings as ere relics of the past:
You think they're so cute,
Think they're so funny,
Wait until they've got you running to the
The song ends with the two-word chant "Night rally" repeated over and over and over and over...
Hours later, when the listener's taking a shower, guess what he's humming over and over and over and over...
Like all anthologies, Taking Liberties has its drawbacks. Since the songs cover a four year span, and since they were never meant to appear together on an album, the change from song to song is often awkward (the segue from "Night Rally" to "Stranger In The House" is especially painful). The re-mixes are largely pointless, and a few of the B-sides deserve their name.
But there's an undeniable genius at work here, with some strong music to back up his claim.
Besides, any record that includes version of Elvis Costello singing Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" can't be all bad.