Having spent his whole career skirting pigeonholes, Elvis Costello has no love for them now. The songwriting chameleon's new album, Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note), recorded in collaboration with The Roots, is "just some music," he says. "Anybody who thinks, 'Oh yeah, this is the hip-hop record' – that would be such a terrible thing."
In fairness, Costello isn't averse to exercises in genre: his 36-year discography includes soul, country, piano-ballad, orchestral pop, chamber music, and New Orleans records, in addition to every flavour of rock. And while he may not rap on Wise Up Ghost, the oft-dramatic singer narrows his range, declaiming his lyrics against Roots drummer/bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's rough-textured breakbeat grooves. What's more, in the spirit of hip-hop sampling and collage, Costello has found a new way to revisit – and remix – his past.
He first met The Roots in 2009 on The Jimmy Fallon Show, where they serve as the musically omnivorous house band, equally adept at freestyling songs about audience members and slow-jamming the news. At first, Costello was anxious enough about whether The Roots would back him to call up a friend of theirs who works with his wife, Diana Krall, and make sure it was worth even asking. ?uestlove, it turned out, was such a keen fan, he even worked up a version of Costello's classic High Fidelity based on an obscure early, funked-up live recording. Over the next few years, Costello would reappear on the show and jam with The Roots in their dressing room in between stops on an ambitious world tour.
Costello and his backing band, The Impostors, had learned 150 of his songs; their setlists were determined by audience members who'd spin a giant wheel, revealing patterns he hadn't noticed before. "My agenda," he says, on the phone from New York, "was to wake up to what I had at my disposal," including "narrative threads between the songs." He started writing material by patching together lyrics from throughout his career, which he'd set to new melodies, reconfiguring vignettes of Thatcherite greed and post-Katrina malaise. His aim was to create "a bridge to a number of new thoughts. I wanted to show where those thoughts emerged from – that it was a consistent line of inquiry, that our vigilance about all these matters is the only way in which they get attended to." He also started writing densely imagistic new songs such as "Tripwire," which packs religion, oppression, surveillance, media, and propaganda into a scant few lines: "There's a cross in the line of the circuit / There's a voice that you might overhear / There's a lens making the picture perfect / They say you have nothing to fear."
He and The Roots started recording their dressing-room sessions; often they'd base the music on Costello's back catalogue as well. "Tripwire" builds melancholic soul on elements of the pristine 1989 number "Satellite." The disquieting, cinematic title track uses a string sample from North and "Cinqo Minutos Con Voy" grew out of rehearsals for "High Fidelity," as captured by Roots producer Steve Mandel, who adds swirling, dubby effects.
This last song's lyrics were inspired by Costello's 1982 song "Shipbuilding," the story of an English father working on a boat that will sail his son to Argentina to be killed in the Falklands War. Costello calls "Cinqo Minutos" "a simple tragedy about a daughter waiting for her father to arrive into exile and never arriving because he's been pushed out of an aeroplane." He compares the Argentinian dictators' methods of suppressing dissent with "accounts of people who have been flown off somewhere to be interrogated in our name, without any accountability, sometimes by people whose methods we abhor and claim to be those of the reprehensible enemy."
Wise Up Ghost is shot through with anger at a dysfunctional world, and yet Costello insists it's not without hope: otherwise, he notes wryly, he'd have called it Drop Dead Ghost. The album is full of ear candy and danceable beats, and its apocalyptic imagery is relieved at the end as Costello, in old-fashioned crooner mode, sings the gentle "If I Could Believe." It's a moment of near-spiritual earnestness that closes with a big string section playing what Costello calls "crazy chromatics … undercutting any kind of grandiosity."
For all his thoughtful observations, and his and ?uestlove's encyclopedic pop geekery, Costello says they "haven't really theorized this record … we just played." True to his former role as the host of CTV's songwriter interview show Spectacle, he seems to prefer asking questions to offering answers. And where the cover of Wise Up Ghost seems to mythologize him, echoing the design of the City Lights beat-era Pocket Poets Series that published Ginsberg's Howl, Costello admits he demurred when it was first suggested.
He may have penned some of the most vivid lyrics in pop – ?uestlove compares them to the work of Ezra Pound – but he insists, "I don't have any pretense to being a poet. There are some very cruel and vain and deluded people among poets… they're not all as a class a noble breed. Doctors get struck off for malpractice, and bankers go to jail and get disgraced – all those voices of authority have switched around a little bit. So I'll just be me, thank you for the compliment, but I'm not going to elevate myself."
So the words "Number One" on the cover – they're simply there to foreshadow a sequel? Costello chuckles. "That's just a chart prediction. We're not setting the bar too high."