With Taking Liberties, Elvis Costello and The Attractions have done it again!
Combining rock 'n' roll basics of the 1950s with straight pop of the '60s, inspired psychedelia with touches of rock theatrics of the '70s, the new Elvis has created the best marriage of the decades gone by since Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band first tore up the East Coast.
The new Costello LP is not really new. It is a compilation of tracks released only in England, "B" sides to American 45s and British EPs, unreleased demo masters produced by Costello, and other rare collectibles.
Taking Liberties is aptly titled, since previous attempts by other rock giants has resulted in critical dismay or commercial failure. Metamorphos, The Rolling Stones' album of tracks from the past was deservingly a monumental flop while The Who's Odds And Sods, very much a memorable anthology, fell short of the public's expectations being released after their '73 masterpiece, Quadrophenia.
Much to Costello's credit, he has ignored the past history of "collectible" albums falling flat with the release of Taking Liberties in the States. And in doing so, he has successfully surfaced on top of the music scene by risking to walk the fringe of rock's outer limits.
Kicking off with the powerful "Clean Money," this record belts you with an emotional jab to the jaw and continues to pound you for the next 19 tracks. In these post-Knack days of hyper-inflated list prices, it's incredible that this record and Get Happy, Costello's last album, boast a previously unheard of line-up of 20 tunes apiece.
Although most of the songs are typical fiery Costello rockers driven by Pete Thomas' frantic beatings on the two and four, Steve Naive's kaleidoscopic keyboards, and Bruce Thomas' pulsating bass lines, not everything here is upbeat. With Costello, songs don't need to be upbeat to be felt in the gut.
Of the record's two ballads, "Just A Memory" and "My Funny Valentine," the later could be a perverted version of something from Frank Sinatra's immortal Only the Lonely album. The Attraction's backing track is just as haunting as Nelson Riddle's orchestration, and has enabled Costello to translate the crooner-styled songwriting of the '40s into a demented brand of torch songs for the '80s.
And it is just this, The Attraction's fierce backing combined with the masterful aural tapestry woven by producer Nick Lowe, that compliments Costello's songwriting and singing perfectly. Costello's vocal sneering combined with a stinging wall of sound too complex to be punk, too classic to be considered New Wave, is what makes Costello the ingenious recording artist he is.
Included on Taking Liberties are "Girls Talk" and "Talking In The Dark," the two Costello-penned songs which surfaced on Linda Ronstadt's last album, Mad Love.
Although not as commercially arranged as the Ronstadt covers, the Costello versions here seem to work much better. Ronstadt's interpretation of "Talking In The Dark" was a farce due to the fact that she handles the vocal task totally "straight." The thing that makes a Costello song work so brilliantly are his lop-sided phrasings and vocal inflections. His vocal style, combined with the ambiguities, reversals and word games present in all his lyrics make his songs take on a bizarre duelistic edge, giving the tunes an intense quality of pop surrealism..
All this may sound like the typical incoherent babblings of a rock critic guilty of inane over-intellectual analysis, but that's not the intention at all. I don't profess to understand THE meaning behind Costello's songs. In fact, I doubt if there is any one meaning at all. Just as he so skillfully combines musical influences of the past three decades into an inseparable collage, Costello also fuses the endless interpretations of the English language into some of the most splendid rock poetry heard in ages.
Elvis Costello is still bitterly entrapped within his world of pop paranoia on Taking Liberties, but then, how can it be any other way? His world is pretty much out of control. Being the current "angry young man" of rock hopelessly torn between romance and (sur)realism, he refuses to bow to personal, political and social expectations even if they force him to retreat into a kingdom of self imposed exile.
Elvis Costello probably never will be happy. But as long as he fails to find contentment with the modern world, fans of his music will find an emotional release through his special brand of defiant rock 'n' roll.