[Album Review] Elvis Costello / The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

By Jake Tully

At first thought, the
curious collaboration of The Roots and Elvis Costello may seem arbitrary and
much too prone to disjunction to serve as a coherent project. Costello, a
59-year-old new-wave progenitor and The Roots, forerunners of eclecticism in
the hip-hop world don’t seem like obvious bedfellows. However, considering both
artists have teamed up with an incredibly diverse pool of musicians – Burt
Bachrach, Annie Sophie van Otter, John Legend, Dave Matthews Band, to name a
few – perhaps the collaboration isn’t as odd after all. Costello has proved
himself to be a musical chameleon since his debut, as have The Roots performed
with Jimmy Fallon’s countless musical guests since their tenure as his house
band in 2008. On Wise Up Ghost,
Declan MacManus and Questlove have created an eerily dissonant and tempestuous
journey to embark upon, and it’s not entirely smooth sailing.

More
times than not, Costello sounds vocally like the harbinger of imminent doom and
destruction on Wise Up Ghost. Other
times, his perfectly flawed voice flows through The Roots’ impeccable beats on
a sexual tirade destined to meet a morose end. Every track presents a looming
melancholia only intensified by the union of Costello’s whiplash crooning and
The Roots laying down the most appropriate groove as only they can.

Elvis
Costello is no stranger to fitting a copious amount of lyrics within a phrase,
so much of the pseudo-rapping he achieves comes off more naturally than one
might think. On “Sugar Won’t Work” Costello delivers the lines “Lighting
up!/Sugar The Pill/A wall of ocean ten miles high/Metal darts torn from the
sky/Like wanton boys make noise pull wings from flies”. Of course, the prime
example of Costello’s delivery on the album one should look no further than the
bombshell of a single “Walk Us Uptown”. The brit-rocker comes of flawlessly as
an old pro of the hip-hop/soul variety throughout the entirety of Wake Up Ghost. Though, Elvis has always
been an incredibly adaptable musical being, so it comes off as little surprise.

Points
of contention on Wise Up Ghost lay
within tracks “Set Me Free” and “Stick Out Your Tongue” wherein the lyrics are
predominantly recycled from previous Elvis Costello songs “Bedlam” and “Pills
& Soap”, respectively. However, the new tracks are such a vastly different
reworking, it’s difficult to remain up in arms. Furthermore, it may be more of
a problem if the re-worked Costello songs were more prominent cuts. As it
stands, the two new tracks stand as completely new songs, not as products of
lack of creativity or content.

Dismay
was also expressed at the lack of presence of Black Thought on the album, The
Roots primary rapper. Many felt his exclusion made the album less of collaboration
from The Roots and more of an Elvis Costello and Questlove project. While such
a question seems somewhat semantic, The Roots otherwise contribute a massive
amount to the equation, with Elvis standing in as Black Thought’s humble
placeholder.

What
could have been a disastrous and disconcertingly avant-garde album, Wise Up Ghost’s ambition paid off in
spades. The master singer-songwriter and the most intelligent hip-hop
collective on the scene today have proved that two seemingly different poles of
musical background can come together and forge something mesmerizing.

Key
Tracks: “Walk Us Uptown”, “Sugar Won’t Work, “Come The Meantimes”

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Born and raised on classic rock and oldies,
Jake Tully consumed music voraciously growing up in Central California. He has
his wonderful grandparents to thank for his love of music, as well as the
amazing luck to have seen hundreds of concerts in his lifetime. He considers
himself an eclectic consumer of all media, and further reading can be found at his blog.

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