Elvis Costello has collaborated with a lot of artists throughout his career, so it carries serious weight to say that his new album with The Roots is the very best of those musical chemistry experiments. Wise Up Ghost is fierce and unrelenting, both musically and lyrically, the sound of artists trying to take the temperature of the times in which we live and getting pretty steamed in the process.
Born of a Costello appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots are the house band, the album was originally going to be a reworking of Elvis classics. That idea was shelved in favor of a more original project, although there are a few songs that are essentially mash-ups of old E.C. lyrics. For example, “Wake Me Up” combines “Bedlam” and “The River In Reverse” into stinging funk, while “Stick Out Your Tongue” takes a heaping helping of Costello’s proto-rap “Pills And Soap” and a dash of the recent diatribe “National Ransom” and concocts a slinky groove from that wordy stew.
These tracks are clever and animated, but the profound stuff really takes place when Elvis, Roots drummer/bandleader Questlove Thompson, and producer Steven Mandel start from scratch. Opening track “Walk Us Uptown” sets the menacing tone with strangled computer blips, a downcast piano riff, and a skittering bass line. Costello, in his most cutting voice, castigates not only those who inflict the damage in society but also those who sit back and let it happen to them: “And we’ll stand in the light of your new killing ground and we won’t make a sound.”
That theme permeates the album, as Costello constantly brings to light both the devious methods of supposed leaders of men and the damaging silence of the bystanders who keep score of the carnage but don’t voice their disgust. Such a confluence of behavior has consequences, such as the portents of chaos that shadow “Sugar Don’t Work” or the figurative and literal battlefields that haunt the the margins of “Tripwire.”
None of this would be as affecting without the endlessly ingenious musicianship of Thompson and The Roots. “Sugar Don’t Work” opens up from a sludgy groove into a pretty, string-filled chorus, while the lullaby-like “Tripwire” builds from a sample of Costello’s “Satellite” with mournful horns and layered backing vocals. Heck, Elvis could be singing Pig Latin on “Come The Meantimes” and the song would still sizzle thanks to Questlove’s machine-gun snares.
The title track is a tour de force, as the band throws everything but the kitchen sink at Costello and he stands amidst the cacophony urging on a revolt of apparitions. The implication is that we, the human race, will be the ghosts if our vigilance falters. On the heels of that maelstrom of sound and fury, the coda is simply Costello, accompanied by piano, belting out “If I Could Believe,” an ironic gospel song that suggests unwavering faith can only be achieved through willful ignorance.
As dark as the subject matter can be at times, the vibrancy of the music never allows this to be a downer. Wise Up Ghost is a fearless, invigorating gut-punch of a record, one that never settles and surprises from start to finish. Elvis Costello spews pissed-off eloquence, while The Roots make even his wordiest diatribes alternately funky and soulful. One listen to this album, and you won’t be wondering how in the world this collaboration took place. You’ll be wondering why it hadn’t happened sooner.