I know what you are thinking. Elvis Costello and the Roots? At first glance, pairing an original, cerebral punk with the world’s premiere live hip-hop band may seem like an unlikely combination. But if one looks closer at the work released by both camps over the years, it makes total sense.
Costello has spent the past 36 years shape-shifting. He’s recorded collaborative albums with everyone from Burt Bacharach to Allen Toussaint to the Brodsky Quartet to Swedish vocalist Anne Sofie Von Otter. Not bad for a guy who began his career by merging a Buddy Holly-esque image with a Clash-like cultural sneer. He’s experimented with country and rockabilly. He’s been remixed by Tricky. He’s even married to jazz vocalist Diana Krall. So a collaboration with the Roots at this point seems like a logical move from his standpoint.
The Roots have grown considerably since their early ’90s rise. One of the only hip-hop groups to play instruments, they have always worked with an eclectic sonic stew. This has been even more true in the years since they became Jimmy Fallon’s house-band. In that position, they have backed artists from just about every genre. The Roots themselves have backed everyone from Booker T. to John Legend to Erykah Badu. So, from their standpoint, a collaboration with Costello makes sense. If Costello seems like their first co-conspirator not from the hip-hop and R&B world, you haven’t been following them closely enough.
“Wise Up Ghost” brings out the best sides of both acts. Elvis at 59, somehow still seems every bit like the “angry young man” he was when he burst onto the scene. He snarls and barks throughout this record, sometimes letting his voice give in to a characteristic rasp, and during the softer moments, he exhibits his impressive abilities as a crooner. The Roots treat Costello like a new toy, experimenting with different backdrops and templates. The dub-heavy lead-off track, “Walk Us Uptown,” sounds like a forward-thinking dance-hall remix of a track that would’ve fit well on “This Year’s Model.”
This is a groove-based album at its core, firmly placed in a tradition built by Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. “Sugar Won’t Work” finds Costello paired with an orchestra and a funky “Superfly” bass-line. This is the most authentic soul music Costello has ever produced. It’s something he has experimented with before, but he has never fully succeeded at this level. The Roots are most definitely the ones to thank. Together, they are making a record on par with Motown’s funky output from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Here the Roots are acting as the modern answer to the Funk Brothers. This gets to be increasingly true as the disc progresses, from the nearly acid-washed jam of “Refuse to Be Saved” to the mighty, slow, menacing strut of “Wake Me Up.”
“Tripwire” is a beautifully serene lullaby, bringing to mind the work of golden-age Smokey Robinson. Pairing such a sweet backdrop with Costello’s typically cryptic and dense lyrical style creates an interesting contrast.
“Stick Out Your Tongue” is a standout track with its silky, scratch-driven groove. Lyrically, Costello does something risky. He recycles lines and themes from his back-catalog, singing about “pills and soap” and spouting out the line “in time you can turn these obsessions into careers.”
He does this later on the album, too, on the deluxe bonus track “Can You Hear Me?” recycling lines from 2002′s “When I Was Cruel” track. This could make it seem as if Costello had run out of ideas, but anyone familiar with his work and his massive level of output knows that is not the case. This practice merely ties this album to the rest (and the best) of his work. The title track borrows a recognizable signature from Costello’s “Can You Be True,” while one look at the picture of Costello with a camera in the center of the album’s booklet is an instant reminder of the iconic cover of “This Year’s Model.”
“Come the Meantimes” sounds like the Roots modern, sped-up answer to Isaac Hayes’ often sampled “Ike’s Rap II,” while “(She Might Be A) Grenade” delivers a sly, funky burst. “Cinco Minotos Con Vos” is an unlikely duet between Costello and Latin vocalist La Marisoul.
“Viceroy’s Row” places Costello over a horn-driven groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Common’s records, a notion that brings to mind my only minor complaint about the record. The Roots are a hip-hop group. This album has no rapping. I would’ve liked to hear Black Thought bust out a verse from time to time between Costello’s verses.
This matter aside, “Wise Up Ghost” is among the strongest collections Costello has ever put out. (No joke! It is probably among his top six best records.) Both Costello and the Roots further showcase their elasticity. This album is a standout in both of their respective, rightly extensively celebrated discographies. I hope the “Number One” etched into the album’s cover is an indication that this is not merely a one-off collaboration but rather just the beginning of a beautiful musical relationship. This record is pure gold from every angle.