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Vinyl Tap: Elvis Costello – Taking Liberties

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #37:

The wordplay and mercurial ways of Elvis Costello can often be, to paraphrase one of his own songs, “so contrary / Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary.” It’s a restlessness evident right away in the fidgety craftsman’s recording career as the first albums — comprising a masterpiece-after-masterpiece trajectory — tried on different styles while tossing down a template of every-which-way substance, passion, and vision that would serve his artistry for a prolific 30 years.

As impressive as the prefiguratively and aptly entitled 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, is, things got even better within a year when Costello trades in backing bands for This Year’s Model, as Clover — Huey Lewis’ News before they were above the fold — makes way for the Attractions. The transition from rollicking and raucous pub-rock punk to one of sonic spittle of bristling bite perfectly suits the anti-sentiments of a songwriter who dregs up from some nihilistic depths that “sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.”

A semblance of humanity and compassion, along with a richly-layered pop texture, is ratcheted up a notch or two in 1979’s Armed Forces, but the melodiousness and accessibility were not necessarily divorced from the oft at-odds cynicism of social and political themes – there’s a reason the album’s working title was "Emotional Fascism". Such telling and menacing moods for moderns, along with a fusion of psychology and politics — largely couched in soul shouts and Motown might — characterize Get Happy!! from 1980. “Twenty Songs – All Different!” said the ads promoting this exhilarating sketch book-styled album: Couldn’t wait for the gorgeously lilting “New Amsterdam” to cease? Just wait two minutes and you’ll get the surround-sound of a pounding two-minute Motor City stomper “High Fidelity,” double meaning for all, and doubly demeaning for “Lovers laughing in their amateur hour…”

As “High Fidelity” also states, “Some things you never get used to…” For an artist to put out four consistently first-rate studio albums in three years is an amazing accomplishment. For a record company — specifically Columbia Records, Costello's U.S. label at the time — to come along and compile another album’s worth of obscurities, alternate versions, non-LP B-sides, and European LP tracks never released here — well, that seemed like, and amounted to, Taking Liberties. That the bulk of these terrific toss-offs surpassed the quality of most other artists’ best material was an added bonus.

In any case, it was certainly a treasure trove for American completists at the time. Eventually many of the songs would be available as bonus tracks on CDs reissued and remastered by Rykodisc, rendering Taking Liberties out-of-print. Furthermore, most could be found on Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers, Liberties' British counterpart, which remains in print in Europe. Taking Liberties’ 20 songs — again, “all different!” — constitute a grab-bag of approaches, some reminiscent of tracks from Costello’s first four studio releases, others charting a wayward course or foreshadowing his own restive and untried-and-true efforts at “taking liberties” with such genres as country and western and popular standards.

One of the most evocative tracks is “Big Tears.” Sounding like a quality cast-off from This Year’s Model, this slice of venom-on-vinyl is not only a high-powered stand-out track featuring Clash guitarist Mick Jones and a gale-force keyboard accompaniment from Steve Nieve, it also contains one of Costello’s most impassioned vocals. Though what would you expect from a track that begins with a seething set-up, “Everyone is busy with the regular routine / The sniper just takes his aim”? The insidious aside, though, builds to a climactic ending: “Big tears mean nothing / When you're lying in your coffin / Tell me who's been taken in / Tell me, tell me, tell me…”

Similarly sinister but more ghoulish is “Tiny Steps,” which describes “Wooden bones and pretty lashes / Iodine for your baby's gashes / Little tombs for your baby's ashes / If something goes wrong.” A couple other songs also provide an outlet for an early Elvis-eerie proclivity toward the macabre: Matching the B-movie horror imagery of “Dr. Luther’s Assistant” is “Sunday’s Best,” a carnivalesque creep-fest which warns, “Don't look now under the bed / An arm, a leg and a severed head…”

Of course, on the brighter side, there’s plenty of Costello’s hook-happy infectiousness and wit, although some songs may still straddle a line between violence and whimsy. Costello may express a wish to be “Crawling to the U.S.A.,” but in declaring that “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea,” Elvis’ desire to “Shake you very gently by the throat” has Pete Thomas’ punctuating percussion yielding to punch-drunk concussion.

More unequivocal is “Talking in the Dark,” with its almost perfect merge of sentiment and refrain:

    I miss talking in the dark
    Without you, I'm not conversational
    Without the sense of the occasional
    Without you, I miss talking in the dark
    When the barking and the biting is through
    We can talk like we're in love or talk like we're above it
    We can talk and talk until we talk ourselves out of it.

Less successful, surprisingly is “Girl’s Talk,” the dour original no match for Dave Edmunds’ sprightly cover. But sticking to Costello-to-Costello comparisons, similarly disappointing is the slow-crawl “Clowntime is Over,” and the countrified and mannered “Black and White World,” both improved upon in their final Get Happy!! versions, where they got, well, happier. In addition, and in an early attempt at producing, Costello, in the think-I-can “Ghost Train” can’t, although the woozy song does retain a lovely and memorable couplet: “Look at the graceful way she dances / On foot speaks, the other answers…”

Then again, being happy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and trippin’ the light isn’t all that fantastic. Some of Taking Liberties’ best moments come as the frantic turns tranquil, a shift as encapsulated in the five-gears-in-reverse schism of “Wednesday Week.” Costello’s “Talkin' 'bout the splendour” of history and the Hoover Factory, but the melancholy of the harmony-capped and too-brief tune is affecting as Costello slows in traffic to freeze a little time: “Green for go, green for action / From Park Royal to North Acton / Past scrolls and inscriptions like those of the Egyptian age…”

The notion of time, whether ravaged or in reverie, marks the poignancy of “Just a Memory.” The melody is simple but haunting, the words redolent with regret and recrimination:

    Layin' about, lyin' in bed
    Maybe it was something that I thought I'd said
    With the tempo of today and the temptation of tomorrow
    I don't know if I could give you anything but sorrow
    They stay alive this late on Radio Five
    But the pen that I write with won't tell the truth
    'Cause the moments that I can't recall
    Are the moments that you treasure
    Better take another measure for measure.

There’s only on false note here, however, as Costello bewails that “…the pen that I write with won't tell the truth.” Elvis Costello’s songwriting — with this song, this album, and despite all the tempos and temptations throughout his career — belies such a lament. Poetic license, perhaps? Maybe he was just taking a liberty or two.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://www.soundclick.com/bands/pageartist.cfm?bandID=463156 JC Mosquito

    Quite unknowingly, the first time I heard Taking Liberties I just thought it was EC’s new album, and have always listened to it as such. You’re definitely right, though – what a phenomenal output – not many artists can write and record – what – almost a hundred songs? over a period of a few years with hardly a dud in hearing range.

    He’s gone on to do other styles, and even returned to this style, but, man – he was burning white hot as a songwriter & performer right out of the starting gate – I think that not even songwriting machine Ryan Adams ever had this much material gushing out of him at any time. Maybe Dylan or Springsteen, but you don’t often hear Costello’s name mentioned with those two giants – perhaps it ought to be.

    Yes, of course, I reassembled TL from a copy of 100 Hail Marys and the Ryko bonus tracks – and after jigging only a couple of spots, I have a perfectly wonderful version of Taking Liberties, so I don’t need a reissue of it – the wonders of the modern world.

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com GL Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Hec– I kind of remember taking TL as a new album too, but I figure I wasn’t too off-base with three-years’ worth of relatively fresh material.

    Costello’s side projects have and will continue to get mixed reactions, but I think that whatever lack of comparison exist with Dylan and Springsteen will continue to fade as greater historical and critical perspective gains ground (a transition that will also properly embrace his ambitions with side projects and experimental approaches).

  • http://ebay.com burtsbookannex

    “One of the most evocative tracks is “Big Tears.” Sounding like a quality cast-off from This Year’s Model, this slice of venom-on-vinyl is not only a high-powered stand-out track featuring Sex Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones”

    The guitar on this track is by Mick Jones, guitar player for The Clash

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com GL Hauptfleisch

    Oops, thanks, burtsbookannex–you are indeed correct. I was writing this from (faulty) memory, and didn’t quite keep up with the Joneses on this matter.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video Lisa McKay

    Gordon, the next best thing to listening to Elvis is reading your writing about Elvis. Great piece, as usual!

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com GL Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Lisa, though I feel something awful about the Steve Jones/Mick Jones goof. “…if there’s any justice at all I’d be punished for it I’d surmise.”

  • kevin mccready

    This topic has been on my mind lately. I truly think the songs from TL make his first four albums (reissues) brilliant – as good as any artist.

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