Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs

Something Else Reviews: Lisa McKay: 16th September, 2013

Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, the new collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Roots, is the 30th studio album in Costello’s long, unrelenting, and continually reinvented career. The collaboration grew organically when the musicians became acquainted on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” where the Roots are the house band and Costello a frequent guest. Originally envisioned as an EP, the work eventually grew to become a full-length album.

Costello is a wordsmith with few equals and a talent for breathlessly cramming an uncanny number of syllables into a small musical space, and he’s never been afraid of taking on socially relevant topics, facts that seem to answer all the culture pundits who thought that Elvis and hip hop would make for strange bedfellows. Wise Up Ghost takes advantage of Costello’s substantial back catalog in new ways, sometimes in the form of entire songs reworked and sometimes in the form of samples threaded into the fabric of new compositions.

The songs all lean heavily on Costello’s flair for biting cultural commentary, and while he reuses lyrics written in some cases a long time ago, the Roots manage to take them to some surprising new places in terms of rhythm and feeling. It’s either a measure of Costello’s prescience, or a sign that the more things change the more they don’t, that none of these lyrics sound dated. In fact, their relevance to the current zeitgeist is always spot on. “Give us our daily bread in individual slices, and something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis,” he sings in “Stick Out Your Tongue,” and the astute observer will note that this relevant bit of analysis is 30 years old this year (a reworking of “Pills and Soap” from 1983′s Punch the Clock).

Thematically, Wise Up Ghost is pretty bleak stuff. “Tripwire” sounds soothingly like a ballad, but the lyrics are lacerating, hinting at barely disguised danger (“Torn from the pages of history, repeated again and again and again; you’re either for or against us, and that is how the hatred begins”) and laced with paranoia. Floating through the twelve tracks is the idea that we’re on an irreversible collision course with disaster, propelled by corporate interests and a populace that’s all too happy to trade freedom for imaginary comforts, kept dumbed down by a corporate news machinery that keeps us drugged up on pop culture and a sense of false patriotism. There’s danger lurking around every corner on this album, and we have no one to blame for the fix we’re in but ourselves.

It would be nice to say that all this ends on an upbeat note, thematically speaking, but it doesn’t. The last track, “If I Could Believe,” suggests that the singer can’t buy into any of the nonsense he’s being asked to believe, and more’s the pity:

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
If I could believe

If you’re of the opinion, like I am, that Costello’s at his best when he’s leaning toward the dark side then you’ll find Wise Up Ghost very appealing. His voice, which magically seems to get even better as he ages, sounds terrific, with a slightly hoarse edge that blends nicely with The Roots’ rhythms and the overall cynicism of the work. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s drumming drives everything forward at just the right pace, with Costello’s sinuous vocals insinuating a resigned and pessimistic fury that simmers just below the surface of the music. And in spite of the substance and the tone, make no mistake — this is sexy stuff. There’s no rule that says doomsday can’t be exciting in its own weird way.

Songwriting credits on most of the tracks are shared by Costello, Thompson and their co-producer Steven Mandel. The new material is fresh and interesting (particularly the lovely “Cinco Minutos con Vos,” another case of a lovely melody and seductive rhythms hiding a lyric with the sting of a scorpion’s tail), and the three have done a great job of taking some of Costello’s older stuff and driving it right downtown. If we are, as Costello seems to be suggesting, careening toward the apocalypse, at least we’re getting there in style.