Elvis Costello's Taking Liberties — a twenty-cut, 1977-80 collection of B-sides, U.K.-only lp tracks, and three cuts prev. unrel. — is interesting mainly for the light it sheds on the trouble Costello is in. Like any such piece of product, the album is a mixed bag of left-field surprises and obscurities best left obscure, but what's disturbing is that all of the best material is at least two years old. The skin-crawling tension that kicks off the otherwise bouncy, be-my-baby love song "Radio Sweetheart" is just terrifying; the replacement of carefully constructed tension by the inertia-in-motion of something like "Crawling to the U.S.A." is just sludge. Ideas fly all around the earlier numbers — the strange reference to "goose-step dancing" in "Radio Sweetheart," the mystery of "Stranger in the House," the controlled repulsion of "Night Rally." Nothing is very mysterious about "Wednesday Week," "Dr. Luther's Assistant," or "Clowntime Is Over," but nothing is very precise, either; you can pick up a sense of desperation and betrayal, but it's bland for its vagueness. The music is convoluted; with "Dr. Luther's Assistant" the rhythm rolls over and dies. "Night Rally" hardly matches "Radio, Radio" (the song it replaced on the U.K. version of This Year's Model), but it has a spine, a progression so insistent it suggests "Like a Rolling Stone" with all of the hope bled out of it, and what could be more appropriate for a song about the rise of the National Front? The most compelling thing about the later "Ghost Train" is its title.
When Costello first came to our attention in the summer of 1977 — with his notorious, brilliantly careerist comment that the only subjects he felt qualified to speak about were "revenge and guilt" — he seemed like an anomaly: a craftsman in a season of one-chord prophets, a mirror-star of barely legal age who'd already learned as much from Billie Holiday as from Buddy Holly. Still, he fit the season. Johnny Rotten sang rants and Costello sometimes sang ballads, but they were brothers under the hype. The difference was that if Rotten's flame-out was implicit in his own performance, no less implicit in Costello's was that he was a figure to be reckoned with over the long haul. He said it in his music: in his classicism and in his commitment to form. Almost invisibly, Costello worked out of a mastery of doomy rockabilly nuance that could be traced from Carl Perkins's "Dixie Fried" to Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie." His singing and his melodies were often as fluid as Frankie Lymon's. His sense of small-combo dynamics, which came from Al Green, the early Rolling Stones, Augustus Pablo, and the garage, could not have been more sophisticated or less effete. But Costello didn't sound like his sources; his personality was too strong and the stories he had to tell too intricately demanding for that. It could take years to hear Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand" behind "Watching the Detectives."
Costello's craft carried an authority beyond musicianship because it was linked to an obsession he was driven to develop and get across: that obsession with revenge and guilt, certainly, though it can be more specifically named as an obsession with love and fascism. The idea, scattered across My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, and then set forth with both greater subtlety and violence on Armed Forces, was that fascism, far from being defeated in 1945, simply went underground, where it now functions as the political unconscious of the West. Because it is an id, a factory of wishes and fantasies, it can't be confined to politics: fascism shapes what we do with love, which is the illusion that — we think — makes life worth living. Both love and fascism are utopias — fascism the utopia of control, love the utopia of surrender of control (though fascism is also the utopia of surrendering control of oneself to authority, and love the utopia of achieving complete control over another person) — and both are dangerous and corrupting, because they promise absolutes, and because we can no longer tell one from the other. Both love and fascism are false solutions to the problem of revenge and guilt — false solutions, because they are the true sources.
The expression of such a theme demands the finest feel for detail and paradox, not to mention the will to see the theme through. That will powers Armed Forces, but already you can hear the feel for detail and paradox begin to fumble: the vocals are often meandering, the rhythms muddy. The mostly claustrophobic sound of the album was right for the theme, but that sound took over on Get Happy!! and blurs the later cuts of Taking Liberties. Moving in parallel to the 2-Tone craze for sixties black music as found in ska and rock steady, Costello may have gone to Motown and Stax for the basics of Get Happy!!, but all that came through was an echo: Motown changes are there, but everything else of Motown, and close to everything of Costello, is suffocated. The singing is impossible to follow; you tune out. Hints buried beneath the surface stay buried. There's no room for emphasis in the sound, no room for the kind of pause that allowed Costello to stop "Watching the Detectives" dead in its tracks, and you in yours. Costello's ability to speak as the man with the bad news dried up; from accuser he turned to complainer, but you couldn't find the object.
You can hear all of this on Taking Liberties, along with no indication of what might come next. Costello's great theme is hardly exhausted, though it may, for the time being, have exhausted him, or closed in on him. I think it remains the key to his career: that will to take revenge on the guilty conscience he has received from the past. The question now is whether Costello can find the music, recreate the craft, to keep the key turning. Yes, he's a star, with a year or so of free ride left in his name, but he's never given the slightest evidence he's interested in stardom for its own sake.