Review: Elvis Costello & The Roots - Wise Up Ghost

When I first heard that Elvis Costello was teaming up with the Roots for a full-blown, album-length collaboration, I feared the worst.


I’ll admit it: when I first heard that Elvis Costello was teaming up with the Roots for a full-blown, album-length collaboration, I feared the worst. It seemed too much like sheer spectacle — the idea seemed too novel; the proposed synthesis of styles too incongruous.

I’ll admit this, too: I’ve never been so completely wrong in my assumptions about a record. In the world of pop, more often than not you can smell the tripe from a mile away, and while it would be a mistake to say that I expected Wise Up Ghost to be quite that bad, I certainly didn’t expect it to be even half as great as it is.

Musically speaking, it’s a melange of what on first blush seem to be discordant tones and textures. The impossibly tight Roots rhythm section beats up against ornate string sections; guitars sometimes peal above the fray; computer sounds crop up at intervals (dig the sound of a Mac’s volume control on the opening cut); horns abound. The result would be cacophony in less than expert hands. Instead, because the Roots are nothing if not expert, it all comes together to form a symphony of sorts — unflinchingly modern, yes, but also steeped in the past (Costello and ?uestlove both are astute students of music history, and the sound of this record is as strong a testament to their combined acumen as anything you’re likely to hear).

That brings us to Mr. Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus himself. To Costello’s infinite credit, he remains one of the most adventurous musicians of his (or for that matter any) generation. He’s recorded with George Jones and Allen Toussaint and written with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, to name only some of the more prominent examples. He’s prolific, to boot — since the turn of the century, he’s released something like 10 studio albums. Of course, the natural consequence of all this is inconsistency — at times, Costello has delivered unqualified triumphs (e.g., The Delivery Man); more often, his reach has exceeded his grasp and his work has suffered as a result.

Here, he delivers, contributing lyrics and vocals that stand proud alongside his very best work. Costello lives up to his reputation as rock’s preeminent wordsmith (Dylan aside, of course), spitting bile, oozing sap, and dropping jokes like bombs. Religious imagery figures prominently on nearly every track, from the tongue-in-cheek (maybe?) parable of “Walk Us Uptown,” the heresy of “Refuse to be Saved,” to the twisted travelogue of “Wake Me Up.” Specific lines and general concepts bleed between the tracks, weaving for the listener a complex, perhaps even impenetrable thematic tapestry that’s no less engrossing for its inscrutability. Moreover, Costello’s vocal technique has only improved with time, and he handles these difficult lines with typical aplomb.

I’ve been spinning this album and nothing else for the past few days, worrying that perhaps my enthusiasm for it would wane after repeat hearings. It hasn’t — if anything, it only gets better each time out. It’s rare that a record comes along that so boldly states its own greatness, and it’s rarer still that such an album actually lives up to that promise. Wise Up Ghost does. [B+]