Elvis Costello's public behavior during the past couple of years hasn't been of the sort to endear him to anyone. His fits of pique haven't seemed to derive so much from precocious artistry, but from an overall grouchiness.
His behavior doesn't really matter, of course, but his tantrums lingered in the back of the mind, and when Get Happy was released earlier this year (a difficult and murky sounding album that contained an involved and tiring sequence of 20 songs). the combination of Elvis the rude boy and Elvis the taxing musician seemed to take the edge off of his appeal. True, he was still a great songwriter, but suddenly he seemed more of a chore than a treat.
What Elvis needed badly, it seemed to this reviewer, was something that would restore some humanistic touches to the Costello canvas. Unintentionally. Taking Liberties turns the trick. This crudely organized collection of 20 songs that have been filling time as unreleased cuts, B-sides to singles and English album cuts is a grabbag of unrefined Elvis, early Elvis, relatively mediocre Elvis and also some very good Elvis.
The lack of any grand design to the album is perhaps its biggest plus. This collection of singles profits from the lack of structure to the album. Instead of being made to think about "what it all means," the listener is allowed to simply sit back and enjoy the songs. It's sort of like the pleasures gained from a used book shop — one looks for the classics, but the dog-eared pulp novels are kind of fun, too.
One of the big pluses is that many of these 20 songs are under two minutes long, and, while fully realized. !heir shortness provides the listener with seductive appetizers of Elvis' varied songwriting interests.
This album completely shuts the door on any doubts about Costello's ability as a songwriter. Alter all. this LP does feature some of Elvis' weakest material, but there's not one cut on this disc that is not listenable. In three years. on five US. albums, Costello has released 76 songs (only three of which have been written by other people) and that doesn't even count the live EPs, singles and songs that he just hasn't gotten around to putting on vinyl.
That's a stunning output, and it's not one where quantity has been divorced from quality. Even on the cuts on this disc that fall short, like "Ghost Train" or "Dr. Luther's Assistant," one can hear Costello and the Attractions, his perennial three-piece back-up band, trying different approaches and styles.
Another thing that this album reiterates is Costello's accomplishments as a singer. Note: that's not to imply that he's a good vocalist because he's not — his voice just doesn't have range or flexibility. However, when it comes to phrasing and emphasis there are cuts here that prove that Costello is a crafty and effective pop singer. He's adept at singing country ("Just A Memory). soul (Van McCoy's "Getting Mighty Crowded") and he's even capable of bringing meaning to a dusty gem like Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine"
In fact, some of his best overall singing is done on this record. He displayed more energy on his third album Armed Forces perhaps, but this disc seems to this reviewer to showcase Elvis as a total artist more than any previous collection. His first two LPs. My Alm Is True and This Year's Model now seem in retrospect as initial. embryonic (though effective) reactions to the musical establishment while the aforementioned Get Happy was relatively inaccessible.
He seems to show no sign of letting up. This disc is an interim release (one wonders how much Costello had to do with its release in the first place — the Attractions aren't given credit on the jacket and the back cover contains four graphs of pure hype by a record exec) to fill in time until Costello's next new album, which is tentatively scheduled for release at the end of this year or the start of I981.
This reviewer now looks forward to that next disc with anticipitory pleasure. To be honest. I was a bit burnt on Elvis, but that's been swept away in the appeal of this record. And perhaps that's the strongest overall part of Taking Liberties — this step into Elvis' recent past whets one's desire for his near future.