London Daily Mail, September 13, 2013
Elvis Costello makes a dramatic departure from
As one of our greatest singer-songwriters, Elvis Costello has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett and soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter. He collaborates with Paul McCartney and is writing a musical with Burt Bacharach.
But his latest venture is perhaps the most surprising yet. A liaison with seven-piece American hip-hop and R&B group The Roots, his new album, Wise Up Ghost, is one of the year's most unexpected releases.
The record combines Costello's razor-sharp wordplay with the gritty funk of his new bandmates, and marks a dramatic departure from his previous record, 2010's country-flavoured National Ransom.
"One of the best things about the album was that we didn't tell anybody we were making it," Elvis says. "We decided to work on something, and it developed. I thought we'd do two songs. We ended up with 12."
The Roots, formed 26 years ago in Philadelphia and led by drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, are one of the most influential acts in urban music. They are also the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, an NBC chat show on which they perform five nights a week – and it was there that they and Costello met.
"When I appeared on that show, The Roots had perfected a new arrangement of a song I'd played once with The Attractions in 1978," he recalls. "They did it entirely their own way.
"They do everything in this tiny room at NBC in New York. Once we began work, I was in a studio no bigger than a large cupboard. Never mind the new album, what we really need to consider is whether Questlove should be the next Doctor Who. He works in such a confined space I think he is actually a Time Lord!"
So, has Costello, a British rock icon since his classic debut album My Aim Is True in 1977, made a hip-hop record? Not quite. Sensibly, he doesn't try his hand at rapping. Instead, he meets The Roots halfway, with their combinbed efforts imbuing his traditional melodies with a greater sense of rhythm.
Wise Up Ghost also revisits Elvis's past: "Stick Out Your Tongue" revamps his 1983 single "Pills And Soap," while "Cinco Minutos Con Vos" is a sequel to 1982's "Shipbuilding," written at the time of the Falklands War. There are familiar elements elsewhere, too, with the two big ballads, the soulful "Tripwire" and "If I Could Believe," tugging at the heartstrings to reiterate Costello's songwriting genius.
Elvis, 59, and Questlove, 42, might seem unlikely bedfellows, but they actually have plenty in common. Questlove has been a musical director for rappers Jay-Z and Eminem, but he also has an encyclopedic knowledge of rock. He and Costello both have music in their blood, too: Elvis is the son of big-band leader Ross McManus; Thompson the child of doo-wop singer Lee Andrews.
"We bonded over our similarities." Elvis says. "We're from different backgrounds and generations, but the fact that our fathers were both singers was a strange coincidence. We grew up thinking of music as something that was simultaneously mundane and magical.
"But the most important thing about The Roots is that they are great players. Some of the songs are dark, but the music has a real wit to it."
Costello is also devoting time to the musical, due to be staged next year, that he and Bacharach are planning around their Grammy-winning 1998 album Painted From Memory.
"The book, as they call it in the musicals, is nearly complete," he says. "The first act is written and we have a draft of the second. Burt and I are working on five new songs, and it's wonderful to hear his melodies again.
"Sometimes I'll get back to my hotel after a three-hour-45-minute concert at, say, the Blackpool Opera House, and the phone will ring. It will be half past 12, and Burt will be on the line, wanting to know where my lyrics are."
Costello is also hitting the road again. As well as gigs with regular band The Imposters, he hopes to tour with The Roots, suggesting this Trans-Atlantic alliance could run and run.
"I used to be concerned about where all this was heading," he sighs. "But you can't worry about whether your records affect your 'brand identity'. I'm just enjoying what I'm doing."
Wise Up Ghost is out on Monday (16 Sept) on Blue Note.
Daily Mail, September 13, 2013