It's a measure of Elvis Costello's ability as a songwriter that after a mere three years as a recording artist his fifth LP release in Canada should be a collection of twenty songs that haven't yet found their way onto any album.
Taking Liberties is all the more remarkable for the fact that eighteen of the tracks have been released in Britain on various singles and EPs. Far from containing the failed ideas and inferior work that "previously unreleased” LPs usually do, Taking Liberties is a very vital Costello album from both a historic and artistic perspective.
As a career retrospective, Taking Liberties neatly reviews Costello's "history-on-record” with tracks from the last three years. "Stranger In The House," a song most familiar in the version Rachel Sweet did on her Fool Around LP is featured here with Clover, the group that played on Costello's first album, My Aim Is True. The apocalyptic "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," a track that was very nearly included on the Canadian pressing of This Year's Model instead of "Radio, Radio," at last makes it on album. (It had been issued as the A side of one of the few EPs CBS records has ever issued in Canada, but disappeared quickly in 1978).
"Crawling To The USA" is the single representative from the album sessions that Costello and the Attractions undertook in Sydney, Australia. Nothing more has yet surfaced from those sessions but fans continue to drool at the prospect of a complete LP heldback, perhaps as a result of one of Costello's famous temper tantrums.
The Holland sessions that produced Get Happy!! album are represented by a Van McCoy (?) song "Getting Mighty Crowded" that features Costello's doing a great David Ruffin/Temptations vocal. There's also a rougher-edged version of "Clowntime Is Over," that was recorded at the same time as the one used on Get Happy!!
Finally, for those who, incredibly may own all this material, there are two never-before-released tracks. "Black and White World," again a different version of a song that appeared on Get Happy!! and a track called "Hoover Factory," a great piece of Costello melancholia.
Artistically, Taking Liberties continues to reflect the themes of sexual frustration and life's meaninglessness that run through Costello's best work. Standouts include "Big Tears," a song that features Nick Lowe's slick, textured production, guest guitar work by Mick Jones and a resigned Costello lamenting that "big tears mean nothin' when you're lyin' in your coffin.”
In "Just A Memory" Costello comments on the sad state of modern relationships. "The tempo of today becomes, the temptation of tomorrow," he sings as two people are randomly cast together. Then, after his lover is gone and he has time to reflect, the best he can say is "losing you, is just a memory / memories don't mean that much to me.” The urgency is amplified by Costello's inability to save himself from these emotional dead end streets.
The political commentary of "Oliver's Army" from Armed Forces is continued in "Sunday's Best," a song that chronicles how "times are tough for English babies." England is adríft and being swallowed by "greasy foreign money,” while the population turns inward to "blame it all on the darkies." The fin de siecle mood of the songs is underscored by the carnival music the Attractions play. A flood of end-of-empire documentaries have never captured the English plight so well.
With its fine liner notes and excellent music, Taking Liberties serves both the Costello fan and the casual listener. For a change a record company is forgiven for a compilation package since Taking Liberties serves to wet the appetite for the new Costello disc due sometime in the winter of 1981.