Elvis Costello & The Roots, ‘Wise Up Ghost’

“Wise Up Ghost” gets three out of five stars.



Mack Hayden , Writer

That guy with the glasses your dad liked when he was in college and Jimmy Fallon’s band did an album together? They most certainly did. Collaborations are always at least somewhat anxiety-inducing, even more so than a new album from a favorite band. In a collaboration, you’ve got two independent parties coming together in the attempt to form a cohesive whole. So, on a simplistic level, you’ve got twice the chance to excel and twice the chance to fail. Also, either party can mess it up for the other. Luckily, “Wise Up Ghost” is the product of two incredible musical mainstays who gel together more consistently than would’ve been expected.

Let’s start with Elvis Costello. For this writer, no debut album is better than this man’s “My Aim is True.” It’s a record I’ve been obsessively fond of since before I was 10 and, at 21, nothing has changed. It still might be my favorite album of all time. “This Year’s Model,” “Armed Forces,” “Get Happy!!” and “Trust” are all veritable Costello classics and some of the best albums of their era. But I’d be remiss to say this idol of mine has waned in his ability since the early ‘80s. Since “Trust” in particular, he just hasn’t had the same angry-young-man bite that his early work displayed with such directness.

Then there’s The Roots, a band known far and wide for their groovy — in the literal sense — virtuosity. Founding member, Questlove, has drummed out hip-hoppy soul beats better than most of his contemporaries since the start. The rest of the band is shot through with funky depth and an effortless take on what’s really cool about living on this madman’s planet. Bass, horns, guitar — all are volcanic in their muted, modern attacks on lesser instrumentation.

The two are far less of an odd couple than would appear at first glance. The Roots have never been the most bleak of hip-hop groups and Costello has never been the most rock-centric of the punk era. Indeed, his “Get Happy!!,” released in 1980, was a tribute to the old school R&B and soul The Roots are fondest of emulating and propagating. Instrumentation is way more centered around Questlove’s people. If you muted the vocals, there’s nothing to set it apart from most other Roots records. But turn the vocals up and you realize how subtle and right-on this collaboration really is. As soon as Costello starts singing, you realize these songs couldn’t have been made without him. They’re so stamped with his sense of lyricism and melody that it’s hard to say either side of the partnership is more responsible at the end of the day.

“Walk Us Uptown” opens the record with Costello liltingly querying the listener while the drumbeats flit about like a guy in the electric chair. The track has the same sort of dark, mystic earthliness present on old Costello tracks like “Watching the Detectives” or “Goon Squad.” “Sugar Won’t Work” is a slow jam with a classic sensibility, allowing The Roots to let loose their more sentimental side during the chorus. During the verses, it’s all rhythm. “Viceroy’s Row” and “Wise Up Ghost” come near the end but both have a midtempo power it’d be foolish to deny. It’s there the strength of the collaboration really makes itself decisively known.

Elvis Costello has a legacy it’d be difficult to tarnish. Even after a long run of sub-par albums, he still hasn’t lost the respect of music fans far and wide. Bringing in The Roots was a good idea for the bespectacled troubadour. He’s always had the brain for it, but they’ve got the soul. This record is like an AED shock to the heart. It may well get Costello going again. Here’s hoping.

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