For the past 20 years, Elvis Costello has split time between his new-wave and pop-rock roots and an ever-expanding myriad of stylistic tangents. Costello has worked with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, Marian McPartland, and others in the past decade — but the new Wise Up Ghost, a funky collaboration with The Roots, adds yet another feather to Costello's cap.
The Roots have provided sharp, collaborative instrumentation for other artists before — and have continually proven adept at accompanying just about every one of Jimmy Fallon's musical whims. The group helped Betty Wright put out her first album in more than a decade — which yielded some gorgeous tracks, including the potent Lil Wayne collaboration "Grapes On A Vine" — and the socially charged John Legend album Wake Up after the 2008 presidential election. And much like those other records, on Wise Up Ghost, The Roots provide the atmosphere around which a vocalist can reside. Unlike Costello — who by now has been genre-hopping for the lion's share of his career — The Roots have stayed put, deepening its one solid groove, making it roomier and subtly more diverse with each successive record. Costello slides right into place as the voice projecting out of a soundscape created by The Roots — most tracks have a funk and R&B foundation with Costello's lyrics and vocals playing around on top.
"Walk Us Uptown" kicks off the record by embracing the stylistic discord of dense and jagged instrumentation with Costello's distorted rasp. It's the clearest blend of both artists' desire to use inviting sounds to deliver a description of a bleak landscape. The lyrics form an indictment of crumbling socioeconomic foundation, but it's not as on the nose as the political songs on Wake Up. Yet with Costello's prolific output, his work often concerns putting forth enough material to wade through in order to find a handful of memorable tracks.
Too often the record gets bogged down in midtempo funk with repetitive beats that don't inspire Costello's vocals to the energetic highs of other genre experiments. And though Costello's never heard a genre he didn't want to dabble in, his willingness to try anything once loses its luster when he continues to wring diminishing returns out of what could be a few great tracks. When Costello drops in for guest appearances, he often brings infectious energy — like on standout song "Carpetbaggers" from Jenny Lewis' sophomore solo album Acid Tongue — but spread across a series of sessions that grew out of Costello hanging around Late Night and jamming with The Roots, that enthusiasm seems to wane in favor of a more laid-back vibe.
And despite the much ballyhooed pairing, the best songs on the album tip the scales toward the elder statesman. "Tripwire" bounces along lightly at a slower pace, but is still anchored by Questlove's drumming — consistently the loudest instrument in the mix to match Costello's vocals. The most quintessentially Costello song on the album is the piano ballad "If I Could Believe," which finds a meeting point between two styles that fits snugly, instead of pulling too far in one direction or the other.
At this point in his career, an album-length experiment like Wise Up Ghost seems to satisfy Costello artistically, thanks to his chameleon tendencies, but there isn't much to add to the best of either catalog. Costello is the pop equivalent of a shark: He must keep moving through fresh artistic ground — or doubling back across territory he hasn't touched recently — in order to survive. Though that movement helps Costello maintain a consistent level of output, that process doesn't always leave essential records in his wake.