A New Element Surfaces on Music's Periodic Table: Elvis Costello and Questlove Break Bad on Wise Up Ghost

Manik Music: 7th October 2013.

About a month after Christmas of 2012, Christmas happened again.

In late January of 2013, news broke that The Roots and Elvis Costello were to be releasing a collaborative album. That single announcement was to music fans what LeBron James’s announcement that he would be playing alongside Dwayne Wade was to existing Miami Heat fans and what Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s collaboration was to artists and art critics. It would be like opening up the newspaper in 1981 and hearing that Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorcese were going to co-direct a movie. It was glorious just to picture.

If you want an explanation as to why Elvis Costello and The Roots are mentioned in the same breath as Warhol and Kubrick, here’s the quick version:

Elvis Costello burst onto the scene in the 1977, mixing the anti-excess attitude of punk with the melodic apples that fell from The Beatles’ tree. He continued to release flawless albums of this ilk as he raised his own bar. In 1981, with five albums already under his belt, he released a country album. Since then, his musical moves have been the good kind of unpredictable—he’s tackled every genre from Americana to Opera, he hosted the best music show in years (the half talk-show/half-performance show, Spectacle), and he’s worked with everyone worth your time in music. His melodies are up there with the best of ‘em, his lyrics—forgetaboutit, and his most powerful instrument—his voice—has always served his songs with a passion and sincerity, unmatched by anyone.

The Roots have the distinction of being the first hip-hop band. Led by the voluble Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter on the mic and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on drums, the group kept hip-hop real and simultaneously gave it more credibility as a performing art form.

Once they started receiving more press (sometime around 2000-2002), it was clear that Questlove transcended the title of “hip-hop drummer.” The more we read about him, the more we understood his depth. We knew about his massive record collection, we would hear him reference Prince and Pet Sounds in the same breath, at a time where nobody in hip-hop was doing so; we saw him collaborate with Jay-Z, Christian McBride, and John Mayer (to name a few), in three completely different contexts. He was a music machine destined for continued greatness.

That continued greatness came in a different form than anyone could have predicted, when, in 2008, The Roots were announced as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. If you were paying attention, then you already knew that The Roots—with Questlove’s creative direction—were going to take talk-shows out of the elevator-music/big band realm and finally update them to modern-day conventions of popular music. But even the biggest Roots fans couldn’t have been prepared for what they would accomplish with their television role. Not only would The Roots play obscure snippets of songs for any given guest as they walked out, they also backed many of the show’s musical guests, often regardless of whether or not the given artist already had a backing band. In other words, you don’t turn down an opportunity to play with The Roots, and for good reason: few bands—of any genre—are tighter.

And that’s the quick version.

You could not pick two musicians with a greater breadth of musical knowledge and appreciation than Elvis Costello and Questlove. They’re a double threat—they’re not just creative, accomplished musicians/creators in their own right; they’re also two of music’s biggest fans and historians. If you were to throw a music question at Elvis Costello and Questlove and neither could come up with the answer, there’s a good chance your question was fabricated. It’s like two scientists who graduated college in different years, at the top of their respective classes, and then met years later at an alumni picnic and realized that if they worked together, they could discover a new element.

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You remember the Periodic Table of Elements from science class, right?

Every element on it is unique to the table, and only the synthesis of new ones can expand it; each one is crucial to the countless advances and accomplishments that have happened in the world.

A musical periodic table would be similar: it would be made up of artists who are unique and shape music’s history and development.  And just like the scientific one, the artists (elements) who are listed at the top are the ones from which the table would expand.

The “top” group would look something like this: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, and Chuck Berry. Underneath that you would have the second class—the artists who broke new ground by using the elements in the top group and combining them with unprecedented ideas and methods: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Phil Spector, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Smokey Robinson, Frank Zappa, and James Brown, among others. And then the following group after that created something wholly their own, while still incorporating previous elemental ingredients: Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Rush, Prince, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Michel Jackson, Madonna , the Ramones, Talking Heads and the early pioneers of hip-hop and electronic music, such as DJ Kool Herc, Coke La Rock, Grandmaster Flash, RUN-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, 2pac, N.W.A., The Roots, Gary Numan, The Chemical Brothers, etc, etc, etc—this is just an approximate list; add your own deserving artists to it as you see fit.

The point is not debating who is or isn’t on the table but rather that you understand the key concept of how the musical it works: you have to create something new, something game changing to make it to the musical periodic table. That’s why not every artist—despite whether or not they’re “good”—makes it. It’s a highly exclusive list and it can only house radical innovation.

As time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to become part of the musical periodic table because there’s less ground to break. A slim margin of today’s artists find a way; Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens, and Kanye West are all innovators making game-changing music and charting unexplored territory. When an artist can take an expansive list of existing influences and combine them in a way that sounds like nothing else—that’s when a new musical element is formed.

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Elvis Costello and The Roots have both broken a ton of ground, in their own respective worlds. That’s why you recognize their names; that’s why hearing about the collaboration was so exciting in the first place. Before we even heard the fruits of their collaboration, it was clear that they would not let us down. And while we knew what the album was  generally going to sound like, just based on the participants, we also had no idea what the album was actually going to sound like—was it going to be The Roots pretending to be The Attractions (Costello’s original backing band)? Was it going to be Black Thought rapping and Elvis singing the hook? Nobody knew for sure. But we should have known that Questlove and Elvis Costello weren’t going to go predictable on us—we should have known that they were going to create something extraordinary and they did—a new 12-song musical element by the name of Wise Up Ghost.

Wise Up Ghost is an album that couldn’t have happened fifteen, ten, even five years ago. Whether they consciously knew it or not, Questlove and Elvis Costello—by continuing to create solid output, collaborating with all kinds of people, and being active witnesses in the political and musical landscape of the last few years—have been studying and experimenting, musically, to create it. In other words, Wise Up Ghost is not the result of one single off-the-cuff session; it’s an album that oozes with the dedication and hard work that comes with reimagining and revisiting every single element on the musical periodic table that came before them—including their own—and combine them to create something fresh.

The first track, “Walk Us Uptown” has elements of old-school hip hop, reggae horns and keyboards, The Clash, and Motown. There’s no song out there that sounds like it—it’s spooky, upbeat, catchy as hell, funky. The James Jamerson-esque bass line (played by The Roots’ Mark Kelley), alone, is worth the price of admission; it might be the best musical moment of 2013. There’s just no denying how good of a song it is—Questlove’s drumming is complex, while still in the pocket, Elvis’s distorted voice cracks and keeps its swagger throughout. When “lost Motown hit” comes to mind, that’s quickly met with “but Motown wouldn’t have gotten this dark on us,” or funky for that matter.

It quickly transitions into the next song “Sugar Won’t Work,” which sounds like a lost Meters song that collided with Rubber Soul and Abbey Road. Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

On “Refuse to Be Saved” and “Wake Me Up,” Costello is going H.A.M, vocally and lyrically, with the dexterity of a gangster rapper, but the understated cool of a 59-year-old Brit. Looking at these two songs, and really the whole album, it’s easy to miss everything going on, musically. Wise Up Ghost contains an entire spectrum’s worth of sonic textures; it would take a full day to deconstruct every little thing that was going on—entire horn and string ensembles are utilized in ways unseen since The Beatles, keyboard parts are layered, bass lines are creepy and grooving. What we’re hearing is the first true 21st-century “Wall of Sound.” This distinction is hardly surprising when we look at our two composers and producers (including Steven Mandel, who’s equally responsible for many of  the album’s moments and much of its overall sound).

It becomes clear by “Tripwire,” the dreamy glockenspiel-laden Smokey Robinson-esque slow jam, that both Costello and Questlove needed this album. Questlove’s style of drumming locks in with Costello’s voice more than anyone else’s that he’s ever drummed with and even Elvis, who plays with the meanest backing band in history (The Imposters, aka The Attractions with a different bass player), needed to extensively work with Questlove in order to reach a funkier level than even his drummer, the legendary Pete Thomas could—and that says a lot.

And lest we forget the other hard-working musical scientists in the legendary Roots crew that shaped this album just as much as its two stars did. Kirk Douglas’s guitar interplay with Elvis’s is subtle but deadly. James Poyser and Ray Angry dominate the keys. Frank Knuckles brings his signature percussive snaps. Damon Bryson adds his sousaphone (crucial to the Roots’ low-end) and makes his impact. Even bass master, Pino Palladino gets down on a few tracks.

“Stick Out Your Tongue” crushes the original version from which its lyrics came, Costello’s “Pills and Soap,” adding much needed structure and less treble. This lyrical recycling can be found on many Wise Up Ghost tracks. And while many took issue with this approach, even more understood the innovation at hand; critics must understand that Elvis is not recycling the melodies—he’s just taking his words from as long as thirty years ago and contextualizing them with modern times and modern sounds. Remember that Costello is already on the musical periodic table; he can draw from his own career in trying to create a new element, if he so chooses.

Whether it’s this rehashing of old lyrics, or the distortion they’re sung through, or the overall gritty, but powerful production, every song has this ransom-note, noir quality about it. It’s like Elvis has emptied his bag of tricks out onto the street of Things Fall Apart and said “Let’s get down to business,” to Questlove, in the shadow of a streetlight.

“Come the Meantimes” is a classic Roots stomper and is the most “hip-hop” of the tracks—it wouldn’t sound out of place on their 2010 LP, How I Got Over, that is, if they carved out verses for Black Thought (which some would justifiably argue should’ve happened). The hotel bell sounds throughout are annoying, but if this is one of the only complaints about the entire album, then it’s safe to say that said album is damn good.

“(She Might Be A) Grenade” drags on a little bit, but is still a song most wish they could write. Further listens reveal a “White Album”-esque quality to it, thanks to Kirk Douglas’s acoustic finger picking and the inclusion of both a lurking string section and a peppy tenor and baritone saxophone arrangement.

“Cinco Minutos Con Vos” and “Viceroy’s Row” are a one-two punch, coming at a time when most albums have lost steam and enter “filler” territory. The former is anchored by a heavy bass line (Mark Kelley is the unsung hero of the album) and Questlove’s expert feel, as he brings the beat back, drops it, brings it back, and drops it, at will. Of course, La Marisoul’s Spanish vocals are refreshing and act as a perfect foil to Costello’s English croon. “Viceroy’s Row” boasts a euphoric, beautiful trumpet/flute/flugelhorn riff over Questlove’s slightly behind-the-beat rhythm. Elvis’s vocal is compressed, rhythmic, and at times stacked in messy falsetto. Keeping with the rest of the album, the amount going on in the backing track is incredible. The best albums are ones you can listen to many times and each time notice something new. Wise Up Ghost is one of those.

The album’s title track is a modern day “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its hypnotic single-note musical bedding. Adding to the effect is Questlove’s  wide-stereo “lead drumming,” which arrives to the party fashionably late and could be filed somewhere between Elvin Jones’s expressive playing and Ringo’s work, circa 1966. Elvis spits verses and caps them off with the refrain, backed up by a choir of himself filtered through a phaser. The other lead instruments are horns and Kirk Douglas’s guitar riffing, both of which recall another title track—”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” If anyone is capable of channeling the psychedelic Beatles at their best, it’s Elvis and Quest.

“If I Could Believe,” the piano ballad-y closing track, only sounds a little out of place on Wise Up Ghost. Matter of fact, it would’ve worked better on a former Costello collaboration—his 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. It’s not a bad song, it’s just not astounding. Although Elvis’s voice is in great dramatic form, and The Roots play the conservative part the song calls for, it just seems a bit square for an album so cool. Luckily, a haunting string arrangement is tacked on after Elvis sings his final note, allowing the album to officially close as darkly as it began.

For those who think Wise Up Ghost is too short, a deluxe edition contains three extra tracks: “My New Haunt,” a distorted, grooving club rocker, with a chorus that should have made the regular album in some capacity; “Can You Hear Me?” a forgettable half-baked droner, that could have benefited from some reggae guitar patterns; and the deeply emotional and dissonant “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings,” a song Costello wrote about his deceased father. This song feels more like the appropriate closer to Wise Up Ghost than “If I Could Believe” does.

After 72 minutes and change (or a little less if you just listen to the standard version of the album), Christmas is over. Wise Up Ghost is a dense but rewarding musical experience created by the best musical scientists in the game. It’s not rock, it’s not rap, it’s not funk, it’s not soul—it’s something in its own class and it deserves its spot on the musical periodic table.

Professor Costello, Professor Questlove: congratulations on your remarkable achievement for the greater good of music. You’ve done us proud.