Usually, when an established-for-decades artist attempts to sound contemporary, the results can be abysmal. Elvis Costello is too smart a guy to sound younger than he is, but he's long been a champion of the esoteric, and works best with people whose record collections are as deep and diverse as his. Still, because his knowledge of the history of popular music is so deep, he knows that you don't have to go too far to risk repeating yourself or someone else. Therefore, he will work with a spark other than guitar or piano to get his creative juices aboil. (For example, When I Was Cruel started as an album of loops, amended by actual players; the last "loud" thing he put out before that was "The Bridge I Burned," which was also heavy on loops, with a monologue spouted through a megaphone effect.)
Wise Up Ghost is a collaboration with The Roots, best known these days as being the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, but also respected as an innovative R&B combo. They're a terrific live band (Questlove in particular being a fascinating drummer), so it's too bad that so much of the album sounds sampled.
Perhaps because their mutual attraction came from their familiarity with his catalog, several songs are either triggered by samples (albeit obscure) from the Costello catalog or apply new arrangements to whole sets of established lyrics. This becomes a game of "Spot the Reference" for Costello-heads; we'll do our best not to list them all here, but suffice it to say the songs he chose makes this one angry antiwar diatribe, demonstrate that nothing has changed since he first wrote the words. The tracks that truly stand out do so because not only do they not sound like reworked older songs, but they also don't sound like everything else on the album.
"Walk Us Uptown" was the smart choice for lead track, since it's not overtly derivative of other Costello tracks, but the mix and organ part evokes Christopher Walken flying through a hotel lobby pre-dawn. "Sugar Won't Work" is more impressive, with a neat guitar snaking its way through the verse, plus an intriguing string counterpoint and harmonies that suggest this could be a great tune by the Imposters one day (assuming they're still on retainer). "Refuse To Be Saved" grants a new chorus to "Invasion Hit Parade," delivered in a sing-speak voice that makes the debt (and reference) to "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" more overt, and an arrangement that recalls the Temptations' "Ball Of Confusion." In the same tempo, "Wake Me Up" combines three Costello lyrics over a quote from another; it's otherwise enlivened by some great jagged rhythm guitar. "Tripwire" is the first classic tune, despite its reliance on the four-chord sample that runs through it. What saves it are the thoughtful lyrics, and loads of layered harmonies. But "Stick Out Your Tongue" is an unnecessary reboot of "Pills And Soap" (with a few other anti-media verses mixed in). While the original was indeed influenced by early rap, at least it managed to incorporate chord changes.
"Come The Meantimes" kicks up the tempo to recall the glory days of ska, while depending on a '60s soul sample. "(She Might Be A) Grenade" is a reworking of "She's Pulling Out The Pin," and not much better than that little-known, lackluster track. He's probably revisiting his older political songs to prove that nothing has changed. If you thought the brief sample from an Italian lounge record on "When I Was Cruel No. 2" was genius, then you'll love "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," which is an actual duet, finding melody over a grinding F-E progression. "Viceroy's Row" recalls a less cluttered "Bridge I Burned," its horn figure recalling a more kitsch era. The title track builds from an orchestral sample from North to a disquieting degree, adding martial drums and a heavy guitar doubling the line. "If I Could Believe" is the long-awaited ballad, culminating in a pretty little flourish of strings that winds up in discord.
There is an awful lot of sameness throughout Wise Up Ghost, but what keeps it worthy of return are the songs that feature him singing, as opposed to reciting. It definitely improves with familiarity, as after a while you can actually discern a song underneath the dressing. Maybe we're being too nice; it's recommended with an emphatic caveat that it might not resonate with the casual listener.
Naturally, a deluxe edition in wacky packaging came out simultaneously, with three extra songs to entice those aforementioned Costello-heads. Why these weren't included in the album proper is a mystery, as they're no worse than some of the ones that were. "My New Haunt" and "Can You Hear Me?" are both slowly funky, the latter relying on another mix of lyrics from three older songs. However, "The Puppet Has Cut Its Strings" is a remarkable "afterthought," a paranoid lyric wandering over a claustrophobic piano and simple rhythm.