"Now we're in a hall of mirrors
With my secret fears and terrors"
— "Come The Meantimes" by Elvis Costello and the Roots
Wise Up Ghost may be the most bleak album Elvis Costello has ever released.
It's amazing, and the Roots are ideal collaborators, intertwining their sound with the melodic bile Costello spits into the mic. It's got grooves to spare. But it is dark, and unrelenting.
We live in dark and unrelenting times. Every day brings new revelations about the NSA's warrantless access into our digital lives. The threat of chemical weapons in Syria has politicians raising war flags and citizens issuing a mildly annoyed shrug. In spite of the near-collapse of our economy and the best efforts of the Occupy movement, the rich still get richer and the poor get… children.
Much of that wasn't in the cultural landscape as this record was being made, but does it matter? Illegal wiretapping, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, greed running rampant over the American landscape… all of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.
The pre-press for Wise Up Ghost indicates it began as a covers project, which is one explanation for the fact that most of these songs are constructed from bits and pieces of Costello's past — an audio sample may inform the tune, or a new composition may emerge with the lyrics of an old song, or even cut-up reconstructions of words from several tunes.
These songs feel fresh. They were written yesterday; they could have been written ten minutes ago. They may be written again tomorrow: "Pills and Soap," a vicious attack on the Thatcher era's dismissal of the poor; "Invasion Hit Parade," released in the thick of Bush Sr.'s fetishistic Desert Storm; "National Ransom," a howl into the roaring wind of unquenchable greed that blows down the middle of Wall Street and Canary Wharf just the same.
Hammer them into new machines around the sinister beats of Questlove and the brittle riffs of Captain Kirk, and they may sound more contemporary, but they speak to the darkest corners of our past, present, and inevitable future. This is soul music as poison pill. The tools of inspiration, of the gospel dragged from the church to the roadhouse — horns, strings, that groove — are weaponized. As vicious as Costello is with his words, the Roots match his mood with their music, two musical chameleons disappearing into a common goal. Co-producer Steven Mandel enters the scene like a mad scientist, pouring spooky beakers filled with evil sounds into the cauldron, mixing the concoction just right for maximum devastation.
On his recent records, Costello has tempered his most cutting observations with the occasional softening moment. 2008's Momofuku opened with a blistering one-two punch, "No Hiding Place" and "American Gangster Time" ("It's a drag / Saluting that starry rag"), but later revealed "Flutter & Wow," a tender mid-tempo love song; and "My Three Sons," a downright sweet tune about the singer's young twins with wife Diana Krall and his adult son from his first marriage, as direct and autobiographical as Costello has ever been.
On Wise Up Ghost, beauty is just another distortion of fear. "Tripwire" takes a delicate glockenspiel opening from 1989's "Satellite" (off Costello's hit album Spike, which also featured "Veronica") and spins out an aching ballad of terror.
"Don't open the door cause they're coming
Don't open the door cause they're here
Above there's an ominous humming
Below there's a murmur of prayer"
Costello leans close into the mic and whispers the words straight into your ears, intimate and violating at the same time. If you're not afraid, you should be.
Even Mighty Like A Rose, the 1991 record from which "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" originate, concluded with "Couldn't Call It Unexpected," in which Costello sings over a ticky-tack piano like a broken music box, "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe / I'll never believe / In anything again."
Fast-forward to 2013, and Wise Up Ghost concludes with "If I Could Believe," a piano-driven ballad of heartbreak that also sums up the bitter, enraged, resigned mood of a singer in trouble times — "Lost in my insolence and sneers / That might sound like prayers / If I could believe." Hope has flown the coop; the angry young man has only grown older and angrier, leaving nothing but beautiful noise in his wake. When you've given the world revenge and guilt, and nothing has changed for the better, what else is left but resignation and regret?