Being a living index to styles of pop music invites both controversy and imitation, as well as fueling rounds of musicological discussion.
For three years now, Elvis Costello has been doing just that, as he has made himself the premier purveyor of the pop styles of the last 20 years, with the ability to write songs that condense the drive, cutting edge and pomp of a certain style in less than three minutes.
Taking Liberties, his newest LP, is not an official Costello album, in that it is a collection of alternate versions, various "B" sides of singles and other material previously unreleased in America. It is doubtful that Costello had any say over the release of the record, and at least possible that he will take legal action as a result against Columbia Records (which won't be a first for him).
Like his most recent Columbia release, Get Happy, Taking Liberties contains 20 songs, and there's not a dull or wasted second among them. Represented are alternate versions of "Black and White World" and "Clowntime Is Over"; songs deleted from American versions of all four of his albums; and the odd, limited-release single.
Leading off the parade of items that Costello had felt were either unfinished or too eccentric for wide audiences is "Clean Money," which appears to be the forerunner of "Love for Tender." Old friend Dave Edmunds is credited with the backing vocals on this rousing opener, whose vicious, bitter vocal marks it as being from the This Year's Model period.
This is immediately followed by Costello's own version of "Girls Talk," the song he gave to Edmunds, who popularized it with ease. Costello's version differs by virtue of its denser, somewhat more sullen approach, and the fact that it runs a full minute and a half shorter than Edmunds'.
It doesn't take long to realize that the world of Costello eclecticism, where Motown and Beatle-isms exist alongside Nashville and Tin Pan Alley, spins surprises on outings that any other artist would consider off-limits.
"Talking in the Dark," which previously saw life only as a 1978 Christmas present to a handful of fans, starts as a seemingly happy, bright march, but soon reveals itself as a frustration of soured romance, expressed in the most incorrigibly sardonic terms.
"Radio Sweetheart," which dates from the period of My Aim Is True, starts like another epic lyrical adventure, but becomes a country-and-western tune with a light feeling that was briefly suggested on that first album. "Black and White World," which appeared on Get Happy in a strict hard-rock style, is done here as a country tune, with a considerably slower tempo setting off its lyrics about the different qualities of photo reproduction in girlie magazines.
A thrilling downbeat, a studied growl and the guest appearance of Mick Jones of the Clash are featured on "Big Tears," another gem of steady aggression that moves in a medium-tempo, classic pop-majesty. Everything from middle-period Beach Boys and Kinks is suggested by "Losing You," a ballad sung to Steve Naive's piano and organ accompaniment alone.
But the thrills get thicker with the inclusion of "Night Rally," which appeared only on the British version of This Year's Model. In both mood and substance, the song recalls the glory days of the big sound of English rock, c. 1967. Costello manages to build more dramatic tension and sheer mystery in its two minutes and 40 seconds than any of his contemporaries could hope to cover in years of work.
Only a one-second pause separates the edge-of-the-seat onslaught of "Night Rally" from the country waltz "Stranger in the House," which is a tearjerker about a fellow whose home life is such that he sometimes looks for a room number on his keychain. Costello wrote it as a tribute to country star George Jones, who, unable to resist the heartbreaking detail of the song, eventually recorded it.
The strongly atmospheric "Hoover Factory," which has never previously appeared in any form, reveals more than just a stylistic nod to the Beach Boys' type of vocal multi-backing and the austerity of Naive's ever-present keyboards. And "Dr. Luther's Assistant," which is quite English-sounding, turns out to be a charmingly melodic vignette about a strong-arm character.
Drummer Pete Thomas, whose accents are covered so thoroughly on the various tracks, employs rim shots and a circus style for "Sunday's Best," a long, allegorical piece that introduces scores of detailed images with characteristically breathless impatience. The song was originally recorded for Armed Forces but somehow got deleted.
Naive's whining organ sound tops off the fast beat and mouthfuls of lyrics to "Wednesday Week" (which contains the lines, "You're fantastic, you're terrific / Your excellence is almost scientific").
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, comes with the inclusion of the Rodgers and Hart classic "My Funny Valentine." Anyone doubting that Costello is a natural master of the ballad form will change his mind after hearing this stunning reading, which is done to the sparse accompaniment of a piano and guitar alone, and is relatively free of the harmonic transgressions that usually mar this evergreen.
Despite its character as a catch-all of past tracks, Taking Liberties is provocative in every respect. Costello, though, feeling that such a collection provides instances of lyrical cannibalism and stylistic miscalculation, probably regards it as much too revealing.