Taking Liberties takes its title from “Crawling to the U.S.A.,” Elvis Costello’s scathing equation of foreign aid and whoredom — perfect for the latest installment of Costello’s love-hate affair with America. As a commercial gesture toward our LP-oriented market, this collection of twenty B sides, British album cuts and outtakes is backhanded right down to its reversed-negative cover photo. By ceremoniously gift-wrapping his trash, the artist treats himself (after only four LPs) with an archivist’s reverence usually reserved for the dead. Since a lot of these tunes have been widely available as imports, many fans who’ll jump to buy Taking Liberties will find that they probably own some of it already. If they’re still willing to part with their money, they’ll deserve what they get: mainly an uneven hodgepodge. Taking Liberties is an album of “collector’s items” that mocks the whole notion of collecting.
Despite this, the record boasts the sweetly deceptive appeal of a rummage sale. Indeed, its very lack of system (no chronological — or other — order, no dating of songs) promises discoveries, bargains and an occasional gem amid the dross. The gem here is Costello’s classic “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” from the English version of This Year’s Model (and released in the U.S. on the Americathon soundtrack). With its stuttering, shorthand guitar lick, its abrupt, shuddering bass and its trenchant, trend-mocking words, “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” is so good that it throws the entire LP off-balance. Next to it, most of the other Nick Lowe-produced Elvis Costello and the Attractions numbers (i.e., the bulk of Taking Liberties) seem shoddy and second-rate. The dreary melodic sameness of such cuts as “Night Rally,” “Tiny Steps,” “Sunday’s Best” and “Wednesday Week” — they all sound like you’ve heard them before, done better under different titles — simply emphasizes their glib, smug lyrics. There’s nothing threatening about either the National Front of “Night Rally” or the Tory hypocrites of “Sunday’s Best,” because the dynamite has been defused by buffoonish waltz arrangements and leaden ironies (“Blame it all upon the darkies”).
More successful are “Clean Money” (an early, raveup draft of Get Happy!!‘s “Love for Tender”), the starkly emotional “Big Tears” and “Girls Talk.” Though Dave Edmunds’ cocky, rowdy, Repeat When Necessary cover version of “Girls Talk” is often considered definitive, Costello restores the tune’s paranoiac underpinnings with the nervous quaver of his voice and soft keyboard parts that echo like footfalls. Edmunds’ frustration might have seemed half-funny, but when Costello moans, “Can’t you talk any louder,” you know he’s hiding behind the bathroom door.
If Elvis Costello manages to reclaim “Girls Talk” (along with “Talking in the Dark,” which winds up — just as on Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love — an agreeable throwaway), he nearly loses his hold on “Black and White World” and “Clowntime Is Over,” both of which are handled so much better on Get Happy!! that their current inclusion appears truly perverse. “Black and White World” is presented as a twangy demo tape, while “Clowntime Is Over,” slowed down and robbed of its heart-stopping organ line, becomes a standard lament: a stroll through twilight instead of Get Happy!!‘s contradictory plunge into darkness.
These alternate renditions — and the range of material on the album as a whole — make Taking Liberties seem less like a songwriter’s showcase (though it certainly proves that Costello is prolific) than a panorama of production experiments and disparate styles. Two early cuts, “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House,” are more interesting as examples of the artist’s attempts to master country music than they are as compositions. At the other end of the spectrum, “Getting Mighty Crowded,” a joyous romp through the Van McCoy number, sports a gritty Stax feel à la Get Happy!!
As at all rummage sales, however, there are cheapo treasures. Taking Liberties‘ most oddly satisfying tracks are those that can’t possibly be passed off as anything but let’s-fuck-around-in-the-studio memorabilia, recorded with only an engineer behind the board and Costello playing most of the instruments himself. In the bittersweet piano ballad, “Just a Memory,” the singer’s sad, resonant vocal turns the words (“Losing you is just a memory/Memories don’t mean that much to me”) into wishful thinking. In “My Funny Valentine,” Elvis Costello manages a straightforward and affecting version of the Rodgers and Hart evergreen. These are the real collector’s items — Costello at his least pretentious. As he self-mockingly sings in “Hoover Factory” (a wonderfully weaving performance that sounds like an accordion crawling home to die): “It’s not a matter of life or death/What is? What is?/ It doesn’t matter if I take another breath/Who cares? Who cares?”
Costello closes Taking Liberties with yet another one-man-band curiosity. “Ghost Train,” full of echoed effects and poignant details, is the tale of an arty couple who remain out of work despite the fact that they have “songs for every occasion.” So has Elvis Costello. And isn’t it lucky we let him get away with so much?