PopMatters: Colin McGuire: 16th September, 2013.
All you really need to know about Wise Up Ghost, the genius collaborative effort from iconic songwriter-singer Elvis Costello and iconic live hip-hop act the Roots, can be found on “Viceroy’s Row”. At about five minutes, the song is the single most indicative example of precisely how oddly nuanced the entire project ultimately is. The track runs on ?uestlove’s misleading, inventively provocative dark groove that doesn’t even prove itself not a mistake until the third or fourth listen. Is it rhythm and soul? Is it a shuffle? Is it the blues? Is it rap music come alive?
Ultimately, it’s all of those things doing their best impressions of the others, an amalgam of an idiom as trite as influence that reaches unprecedented heights here because of impeccable fearlessness and rarified talent. There aren’t a lot of people who could pull this type of collection off, anyway, and there certainly will be some who can’t even muster the guts to accept it as mere listeners. But regardless of intention, reaction, comprehension or confusion, there is still no denying this undeniable fact: Holy cow. The Roots and Elvis Costello actually got together and made an album.
And at the risk of sounding overly smug or obnoxiously glib ... these 12 songs sound exactly like the Roots and Elvis Costello got together and made an album. Each artist is prevalent within the fabric of each note of each track, and each artist gives only as much as they take, allowing for the others to shine in ways only they know how. It’s as unique as anything you’ll hear in pop music today and it demands repeated spins before settling on any rational opinion. It’s not, not accessible, of course, but it’s also not “Alison” sung over a “Rising Down” back beat, either.
What it is, however, is a display of shit-hot funk feels underneath a surprisingly inspired and subliminally aged Costello. “Refuse to Be Saved”, anthemic in nature, is irresistible fun, the singer inching closer and closer to Black Thought (who is disappointingly absent from the set) territory with his rapid-fire delivery and stuttering verses. Even more enticing is the Steve Naive-esque keys that meet up with the Roots’ horns for an interplay alone worthy of whatever they want you to pay. By the time the “I refuse to be saved” cadence shines through the track’s climax, you can’t tell if you’re in Memphis for the protests or the music.
Actually, it’s that very Southern soul that makes Wise Up Ghost so intoxicating. “Wake Me Up”, a retread of the singer’s “Bedlam” and “The River in Reverse”, might be the grooviest Mr. MacManus has ever sounded on a record, his solemn, low-key vocals playing perfectly with the Philadelphia crew’s expertly crafted and authentically presented version of contemporary R&B. Joining Costello’s familiar faces is the decidedly hip-hop “Stick Out Your Tongue”, a Punch the Clock favorite repurposed for a collection that was initially borne out of the idea that ?uestlove and his boys wanted to revisit some of the singer’s catalogue. In hindsight, thank God they didn’t. Because for as intriguing and insightful as that record may have turned out, it would have been criminal to leave this original material unrealized.
Maybe the most notable example of that would-be depravity is the tender “Tripwire”, a throwback ballad that accentuates the best qualities of both parties. Costello, for all his signature angst and punk-rock attitude, has long allowed his secret weapon to be his vulnerability (have you seen the stripped down version of “Everyday I Write the Book” from his short-lived Spectacle series?). The Roots, meanwhile, are accustomed to backing modern-day soul sisters, mastering the art of playing it pretty while also playing it smart. In this instance, the song is a bona fide 1960s R&B radio hit, echoing Smokey and his Miracles along with a settled down Little Stevie Wonder. Adding to the AM Gold is the singer’s delicacy, uttering the title word with the strength of a feather. It’s so welcoming, you would prefer to fall asleep in it rather than to it.
Still, and all gentility aside, you can’t have these guys get together and not expect some dirty fun. “Come the Meantimes” and “Walk Us Uptown” stand out for the dance party they want to help formulate in some sweaty warehouse the other side of Chelsea. The former is classic Roots with its slinky movements and unique instrumentation (not to mention an unavoidable Breaking Bad connection: With all the tiny, spastic ringing bells, it’s easy to envision Hector Salamanca sitting in somewhere on this performance). “Uptown”, the collection’s first single, sets the tone correctly for a release so stubbornly collaborative. The funk guitars and organs, coupled with ?uestlove’s straight-ahead pitter-patter, create the soulful legs on which the rest of the songs stand, a clear indication of exactly what is to be expected throughout the next 11 songs.
And what’s to be expected through those next 11 songs is a surprisingly exciting record. For all the collaborations both Elvis Costello and the Roots have found themselves in, Wise Up Ghost has got to be among the most substantial, among the most revered. Everybody knew that it might get a little weird to hear what these guys could do together, but nobody figured it would be this ... invigorating. Costello sounds no more reborn than he does retooled while ?uest and his crew have never before appeared this skin-tight on wax (turns out that Fallon gig has worked wonders for their capabilities, no?). Right place, right people, right time; those things aren’t even the half of it.
Some people turn their obsessions into careers, the singer argues at one point during “Stick Out Your Tongue”. Elvis Costello and the Roots? Well, they already have the careers. With Wise Up Ghost, though, they now also have a great album.