Some musicians stick resolutely to making the same sort of music throughout their entire lives, each album essentially identical to the last, with each song an attempt to recreate the formula that gave them their first hit. Other musicians are inveterate genre-hoppers to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to figure out why on earth they thought recording certain songs would be a good idea in the first place.
Elvis Costello can be firmly placed in the second category, as he is one of popular music’s most infamous musical omnivores. Despite getting his start as a pub rock act and quickly gaining fame as the most literate act on the punk rock or New Wave circuits ("rock and roll’s Scrabble champion," as he once described himself), he has long been fascinated with other genres of music, and within years of his first album was recording everything from Cole Porter covers to an entire album of country music.
When a new collaborative album from Costello and The Roots was announced, few were surprised that Mr. Costello was again seeking out new musical directions and new collaborators, though some of us were a bit concerned that a 59-year-old white English singer-songwriter would suddenly decide it was a good idea to spend an entire album attempting to rap. Nothing too alarming happens, but the album Wise Up Ghost is a bit of a mixed bag regardless.
Costello and Questlove certainly seem to get along personally, after meeting several times on Jimmy Fallon’s show, but musically they don’t always manage to gel. The laid-back grooves provided by The Roots as a backing for Costello’s vocals occasionally result in the songs sounding more lethargic than they should, given their funky accompaniment.
The stabilizing presence of The Roots helps keep the entire album sounding like a cohesive whole though, which is more than can be said for a lot of Elvis Costello’s past albums. It isn’t an entirely experimental album either; "Tripwire" is classic Costello balladry, though it is built upon a sample from "Satellite," a track from an album he released in the 1980s.
Speaking as a Costello aficionado, the album is difficult to objectively analyze based on only a couple of listens, not just because of the voyage into new musical territory, but also because of the constant callbacks to the old and familiar. It is a densely self-referential album, taking hip-hop’s use of sampling to another level as Elvis Costello lifts entire lyrics from songs decades old to repurpose them. As mentioned, there are old-fashioned samples from earlier Elvis Costello songs sprinkled throughout the album, but the recycling of the lyrics to "Pills and Soap" to form "Stick Out Your Tongue" is jarring to anybody familiar with the thirty-year-old anti-Thatcher polemic.
Similarly, "Refuse To Be Saved" borrows from "Invasion Hit Parade," "Wake Me Up" borrows from "The River In Reverse" and "She’s Pulling Out The Pin" is transformed into "(She Might Be A) Grenade." Most of the recycled lyrics are from rather deep cuts, so the fact that the lyrics are reused might not even be apparent to any but the most obsessive listeners, but it’s still a rather bold choice to base so many new songs on old material.
One wonders whether he is revisiting the past as a means of commentary on how little things have changed since the dark days of the 1980s, but that might be reading too much into it. Those approaching the album as fans of The Roots, or those who have no knowledge of either artist might have quite different initial reactions, but piecing together all the parts of Elvis Costello’s past in their new arrangements is certainly a fascinating task for his fans.
At almost 56 minutes, it’s certainly a long album by any standard, and a number of recorded songs were cut to even get it down to that length. It doesn’t feel long, though, with no songs that seem to drag on interminably, and there even exists a deluxe edition of the record (which I have not yet heard) that contains a handful of additional songs.
The heavy influence of The Roots in the backing material leads one to wonder how Costello will be able to perform most of the songs on tour — he seemed to have solved the problem with his previous album (National Ransom) by playing very few songs from it at live performances! Their position as the house band for Jimmy Fallon likely prevents The Roots from going on a joint tour, but based on the ecstatic reaction of fans at a recent Brooklyn concert by the two artists, it seems like such a tour would be widely welcomed. Even if it doesn’t come to fruition, listeners will at least have a varied and lengthy album to pore over in the meantime.