Mojo, October 2013

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Friction romance

Costello's Roots-assisted sampling of his own back catalogue

Danny Eccleston

Elvis Costello And The Roots / Wise Up Ghost
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Ever since 1979's notorious Ray Charles Incident (good job they didn't have Twitter back then, eh?) there's been a thread in Elvis Costello's work that's almost a quest for redemption. Regular subsequent re-engagements with black American music have proven where his heart really lies, and his understanding of its forms, combined with an inbuilt flair for pain, have birthed the febrile R&B of Get Happy!!, the Langstanleyised '80s soul of Punch The Clock and heartworn N'awlins shrug'n'sigh of his 2006 Allen Toussaint alliance, The River in Reverse.

That last album's title track showed how intuitively Costello can fall into a rolling rhythm, stuffing a line with wordplay, daring it to scan, and finding unexpected verbal escape routes — in other words, like a rapper. And here are instrumental hip hop group The Roots — empathetic Costello backers on past episodes of NBC's super-happening Late Night With Jimmy Fallon — to help him draw deeper from that well.

Just as hip hop disinters the past and reassembles it in surprising ways, so this is Costello "sampling" his back catalogue, juxtaposing lyrical fragments and finding new ways to sing them. "Stick Out Your Tongue" is the exemplar: a sort-of mashup of 1983 single "Pills And Soap" (itself, in its day, a kind of cubist collage pop) with the recent National Ransom, while a woman "who sleeps with the shirt of a late great country singer" flies in from "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" off 1991's Mighty Like A Rose. Lurking in the shadows, Questlove & Co groove hard and low, updating "Pills & Soap"'s atmosphere of nauseated threat.

Why the approach feels refreshing rather than retrogressive isn't easy to explain. "Wake Me Up" melds "The River In Reverse" with The Delivery Man album's apocalyptic "Bedlam" ("Then my thoughts returned to vengeance, but I put up no resistance"), while in a subtly reined-in vocal performance that's typical of the album in toto, Costello sounds slightly drugged. In fact, nowhere on this record is to be found the hectoring quality that non-Costello fans sometimes balk at, and the flickering, time-shifted images substitute disorientating impressions in place of dogmatic narratives. Could it be that Costello sounds better the less "sense" he makes? Revisit 1982's baffling, brilliant "Beyond Belief" for an answer to that one.

Costello recently expressed dissatisfaction with the idea of record making. Why waste so much time and effort in this day and age, he says, preaching to the unconverted? But hang on. What's Elvis Costello without the friction — the sound of his ornery aesthetic scraping against the shiny surface of public life? Isn't this, partly, the point of him? Thanks to The Roots, Costello has new access — and Wise Up Ghost should bring new listeners to mess with. Long may he confront, confuse and confound them.

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Mojo, No. 239, October 2013

Danny Eccleston reviews Wise Up Ghost.


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