What's the first thought that crosses your mind when you hear there's a new Elvis Costello album out? There's a good chance that it's "Oh yeah, Elvis Costello. Who's he with now?"
He's a serial collaborator is Elvis. The Brodsky Quartet, Allen Toussaint, Anne Sofie von Otter, Burt Bacharach — no one can accuse him of musical narrow mindedness. He's one of those people who is clearly in love with all kinds of music and with all kinds of musicians.
But while the results of this promiscuity are always interesting they're not always his best work, sometimes it can seem like he's trying just that little bit too hard. The really good stuff tends to come when he's with a group of musicians he knows and trusts, typically The Attractions or Imposters or whatever they're called nowadays. His last stone cold masterpiece was 2002's angular, bitter When I Was Cruel; albums since then have included the distinctly dull piano ballads of North and the very ordinary roots of The Delivery Man. Momofuku was good though.
So who's he with now? None other than alternative hip hop pioneers The Roots with whose leader Questlove he struck up a friendship after they had worked together on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show. Jam sessions followed and then a plan for an album revisiting Costello's back catalogue which gradually developed into Wise Up Ghost, a mix of old, new and reworked material.
Clearly it's a work that its authors want us to take seriously — it's released on the prestigious Blue Note jazz label and arrives with a black and white text only jacket design in homage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights poetry covers. Is there a message here? Is this Costello's Howl? Certainly these songs are populated by enough grotesques and snapshots of urban despair to make the connection tenable even if there are no saintly motorcyclists or screams of joy.
It's not a surprise of course that Elvis Costello should choose to cut a soul album — his first arrival in that territory was 1980's Get Happy — an affectionate homage to the Stax sound — and he has revisited frequently. Questlove himself has a long history of collaboration having contributed to albums by D'Angelo, Fiona Apple, John Mayer, Christine Aguilera and Joss Stone to name only a few.
From that point of view it's a dream pairing but we know from past experience that dream pairings don't necessarily produce baby pandas so it's an album to approach with a degree of trepidation, but from the opening bars of the first track it's pretty clear that this collaboration is one of the success stories.
A rhythm picked out on what sounds like an early digital telephone dialling system, some bleeps of computer noise, a Doppler shifted train horn followed by an urgent keyboard riff and we're off, immediately drawn into a soundscape that's urban and timeless, polite but always slightly threatening, with The Roots providing a tight and respectful 1970's soul backing to Costello, who leans into the vocal with his trademark sly vehemence and who for once is happy to sound, well, just like Elvis Costello. Which is how we want him to sound. We never quite get the full on contemptuous sneering Elvis Costello but for most of the album he sounds thoroughly mardy, supercilious and rather unpleasant — just right then.
And contrary to rumour this is definitely not Costello's hip hop album — the musical equivalent of Dad dancing — this is distinctively and recognisably a mainstream Elvis Costello album; for the most part Questlove and his boys seem content to take a deferential back seat and fulfil the role of backing group. And what a backing group it is. The drums always rock solid but capable of distinctly skittish asides along the way, some fine loping bass and then blasts of brass and keyboards which serve as punctuation to the lyric, Costello's muse has seldom been so well served by a band.
There's some archaeology to be done among the lyrics — whole chunks of earlier songs are incorporated into the new work — possibly this sampling and reworking is where the hip hop tradition shows it's influence most clearly, although Costello has always been a bit of a magpie himself. "Refuse To Be Saved" is a new take on "Invasion Hit Parade" from Mighty Like A Rose, "Wake Me Up" runs together elements of "Bedlam" from The Delivery Man and "The River In Reverse" (from the album of the same name), "(She Might Be A) Grenade" takes it's lyric from "She's Pulling Out The Pin" (also from The Delivery Man) and anti-Thatcher favourite "Pills And Soap" gets a lick of paint and a new identity as "Stick Out Your Tongue."
Do they all benefit from the radical revisioning? In most case the answer is yes, especially in the case of "Bedlam," whose lyric, when pushed to the front of the mix and not smothered with percussion like the original, reveals itself to be one of Costello's better later works.
It's not just his own back catalogue that Costello samples — snippets from songs as diverse as "The Red Flag" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" manage to insinuate themselves into the mix and I've no doubt that a diligent listen would yield even more borrowings. This is a knowing album that takes great pleasure in being just a little bit obscure. It has no intention of giving up its meanings easily.
There are some good things among the originals too. "Viceroy's Row" is a lyrically dense homage to places where they're selling postcards of the hanging, "Walk Us Uptown" is a song to be sung on twenty first century protest marches until the guns open fire, "Sugar Won't Work" offers a welcome to the end times and provides a catalogue of unnatural portents of doom straight out of Macbeth, "Tripwire" drips with not entirely convincing compassion that sounds like a veiled threat and "If I Could Believe" (the album's only ballad) is a world-weary two-fingered salute to credulousness. Only "Cinco Minutos Con Vos" with its latin jazz stylings seems not to hit the mark.
The album's highlight, and the song which will doubtless appear on several future Greatest Hits compilations is the title track "Wise Up Ghost," which starts slow, the distant vocal accompanied only by strings, but gradually the vocal comes closer and the band arrive one by one as dystopic visions are piled high one on top of the other until the whole structure threatens to topple but never quite does.
Here and on "Tripwire" are the signs that Costello's verbose and cryptic lyricism and sure fire ear for a hook are both functioning at full power.
"An old woman living in a cardboard shoe,
Lost so many souls she don't know what to do.
So say your prayers
Cos down the stairs
Wise Up And Rise Up Ghost.