If positive record reviews translated into album sales, Elvis Costello would be wealthier today than Billy Joel, Queen and Olivia Newton-John combined. Since he first appeared on the nascent New Wave rock scene in 1977, he has garnered countless praise-filled write-ups as singer, songwriter and performer. But Costello has never come up with a hit record of his own in this country. "What gives?" you might ask.
Pinpointing the reason Elvis the Second hasn't hit it really big is difficult, but here's one possibility — he's simply too paradoxical and confusing to the public to be embraced as a star. Fans like to peg their favorites, and most of the newer rock talents are easily pigeonholed — Deborah Harry as punk sexpot, Devo as junior mad scientists, the Talking Heads as incipient psychos. Identifying Costello's musical identity isn't so easy.
He was first promoted as rock's new Angry Young Man, full of bile and misanthropy. The label seemed to stick. But Costello never exploited his trademark nastiness in the most commercially successful ways. He has avoided becoming a cartoon of himself, which generally is the way for a rock musician to win the biggest audiences.
All of which brings us to Taking Liberties, a collection of Costello odds and ends that will muddy his image still further. The 20 tracks on the album don't offer the fanatical punksters what some might expect. What they do represent is a gifted, professional artist who can dabble in old-time soul, country, jazz ballardy and rave-up rock, somehow making a credible showing in each category.
Much of the material on this record has been available before on hard to find imports and bootlegs. Taking Liberties is an assemblage of bits and pieces from his earliest recording days to the present. Some of the tunes, specifically "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," were hits for him in Britain. Others, including "Girls Talk" and "Talking in the Dark," were released first by other artists.
"Black and White World," "Clean Money" and "Clowntime Is Over" were found in somewhat different form on Costello's last LP, Get Happy!! Considering the clean-out-the-vaults nature of this project, it's suprising how may tunes of interest to more than just the Costello completist are here.
Several of the songs are so good, in fact, that it's strange they weren't released on Costello's US albums. The aforementioned "Chelsea" is a riveting slice of Costello paranoia, an account (apparently) of lecherous old men, cheap floosies and the British porn trade.
"Tiny Steps," featuring the shrill organ effects of Steve Nieve, is an equally sleazy narrative comparing a degraded woman to an old doll. Best of all is the abstruse but intense "Big Tears," a series of jumbled images roared out by Costello in his most manic recorded performance.
Taking Liberties is not simply a showcase for Costello's much discussed hostility, however. You'll also find one of the most bittersweet country tunes you could ask for, "Stranger in the House," complete with whining steel guitar.
An old rhythm and blues number, "Getting Mighty Crowded," gives Costello a chance to his style in soul music. On this album are even more unlikely moments — for example Rodgers and Hart's "Funny Valentine," crooned over a muted backup.
Costello pulls a quick change on almost every track — from slavering maniac to slick Motowner to lonesome 'urban cowboy' romantic lounge lizard without any slip-ups. Taking Liberties is easy to like because of this diversity. It won't ever be taken to heart by hard-core enthusiasts of any one musical genre, but Costello just keeps on doing what he does, even if it doesn't all fit neatly together.