By Ben Greenman
What is Wise Up Ghost? It's the new album from Elvis Costello and The Roots. It's also a striking act of musical cooperation, a flower that budded doubly, and an aural report on both historical memory and the memory of history. Wise Up Ghost started as an offhanded remark. Costello was the musical guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots serve as the house band, and Questlove, the Roots’ iconic drummer, suggested the project to Costello. “I subliminally put out the idea of a larger collaboration,” Questlove says. “Or maybe passive-aggressively—I was too afraid to actually suggest that we should make a record together.” The project was originally envisioned as an EP, but the field of vision expanded. “I had worked with them enough on Fallon to know it was a good match,” Costello says. “This is a band that does what I’ve done from the start: they draw off everything, all types of music.”
Costello and the Roots have something else in common: both are artists who have always prized substance over style. So what's this record about? For starters, it’s about a world in turmoil. On the Roots’ Rising Down, a half-decade ago, the band wondered how the promise of Barack Obama’s election would curdle when the outsized expectations attached to his administration weren’t met. That hangover hangs over this record: lyrically, it’s darker than it is light, and it paints a picture of an America that, while not exactly post-racial, has seen its blacks and whites turn to shades of gray—and many more than fifty. The opening track, “Walk Us Uptown,” begins with talk of a “killing ground” and “sorrow,” and it gets worse from there: “Keep a red flag flying / Keep a blue flag as well / And a white flag in case it all goes to hell.”
It does, repeatedly. The apocalyptic imagery of “Walk Us Uptown” recurs on “Sugar Won’t Work,” which laments the limits of love: “Is that a horn that’s blowing / Or a bell that’s tolling? / Walls are falling / Ships pulled out from their mooring.” “Wake Me Up” borrows from two earlier Costello songs about dire straits, the Katrina lament “The River In Reverse” and the madhouse anthem “Bedlam.” And the slinky “(She Might Be A) Grenade” is a love song that quickly makes for the lower level, though it’s John Milton’s lower level rather than James Brown’s: “She's tearing out the seams / She's going to extremes / Nobody told her it was a sin / So she's pulling out the pin.” The lyrics go by at a menacingly glacial pace, like Smokey Robinson slowed down so you can feel the danger fully.
Throughout Wise Up Ghost, there’s a dense sound that’s not exactly hip-hop, not exactly rock-and-roll, and not exactly anything else either. That sense of musical adventure was part of the plan. “One of the first songs we played with the Roots was ‘High Fidelity.’ That comes from Get Happy!!, where we took our cues from Stax,” Costello says. “We didn’t end up sounding like Stax, of course. This is the same thing. Bringing different kinds of music into the same space has never been alien to me. That’s how rock-and-roll came about, so people can use whatever word they want to describe this collision-cum-explosion.”
“Walk Us Uptown,” “Refuse to Be Saved,” “Wake Me Up”: Many of the song titles here are commands, and they help to create a climate of urgency that culminates in the title track. It begins with a piano figure and swirling strings before Questlove’s drums surface. The shimmering refrain of “She’s pulling out the pin” is itself a ghost, calling back not only to “(She Might Be A) Grenade” but to its forebear, a lesser-known Costello track from “The Delivery Man.” In legend, of course, ghosts have a vexed relationship with wisdom. Often, they are spirits left behind because they failed to demonstrate the appropriate acumen in life. Are we now, as a species, risking this kind of nightmare? Can we learn enough to prevent a purgatorial future? Costello’s lyrics have always been sharp, but here there’s a blunt warning as well about the way that slight errors can turn into night terrors.
Fusing Costello’s intricate poetry and the Roots’ textured soundscapes could have been daunting. But the album, co-produced by Steven Mandel, negotiates its terrain expertly, bringing in the Brent Fischer Orchestra for five tracks and balancing entirely new compositions with adaptations of older material. “Most of the lyrical choices came from Elvis,” Mandel says. “In the case of ‘Stick Out Your Tongue,” which reimagines ‘Pills and Soap,’ that one came from our end. ‘Pills and Soap’ has always been one of my favorite songs and Quest’s—it’s this little thing crying ‘Do something with me.’ ”
The album closes with “If I Could Believe.” Over minimal backing, Costello reflects on faith and folly: “If I could believe two and two is five / Two wrongs make a right / Well then, man alive / Lost in my insolence and sneers / That might sound like prayers / If I could believe.” It sounds like a resolution, a way to set the world right—though it should be noted that this optimism depends upon an egregious overthrow of basic logic, not to mention many of the songs that came before it. “Refuse to Be Saved,” one of those songs, is a loose-limbed workout that reframes the lyrics of “Invasion Hit Parade,” from the 1991 album Mighty Like a Rose. “That song was originally written around the time of the invasion of Panama and the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Costello says. “When I went back to it, the lyrics seemed oddly appropriate to the present.” It’s also a clear demonstration of the method that makes Wise Up Ghost work so well: Costello remains inimitably himself while also reorienting himself toward to the band. His aim is Root.
—Ben Greenman is the co-author, with Questlove, of “Mo Meta’ Blues.”