A frequent visitor to US comedian Jimmy Fallon’s chat show on US television, Costello has relished sitting in with house band The Roots for inspired re-workings of his early material. Wise Up Ghost develops the relationship much further, on a collection of original songs, albeit it with a few spliced lyrical excerpts from Elvis’ past.
Advance press suggesting it was a hip-hop collaboration are exaggerated, however, because, though clipped riffs and breakbeats are peppered throughout, it’s closer to an old-school soul record with nods to the sublime grooves of The Meters or Curtis Mayfield. "Stick Out Your Tongue" and "Walk Us Up Town" set social commentary against staccato rhythms, the former borrowing lines from Costello’s 1983 single "Pills And Soap," while lyrical snippets from less familiar Elvis oldies get radical makeovers on the minimalist funk of "She Might Be A Grenade" and the brooding "Wake Me Up."
It’s the most sonically daring album of Costello’s lengthy career, with co-producers The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Steve Mandel concocting a disciplined palette that frames the words against a constantly surprising backdrop. Busy without being overblown, the myriad levels of activity reveal something new with each listen, be it thought-provoking observations on the struggles of the modern world, or curveball melodies and musical passages of remarkable vigour. A high watermark in the canons of all involved.
Q&A Elvis Costello
How did the collaboration with The Roots come about?
The Roots have been on Jimmy Fallon’s show for some time, and after I guested with them ?uestlove suggested that we do something more enduring together. There was a thought about just doing a catalogue record, ie, a collection of my old songs re-imagined by The Roots, but after reworking Pills And Soap it evolved into us making a more pronounced “new” album. I went back to several of my old songs and re-used short phrases and full verses, but about half of the tracks were written entirely from scratch.
Is it true that that the album started as a private hobby project with no thoughts of a public release?
We were just enjoying ourselves on a few songs, but it quickly became evident that we had enough material for an album. We didn’t mention the fact we were working together to anybody except a few close friends. The first time the record company knew about it was when it was just about finished and we asked them if they’d like to put it out.
Is it fair to describe this album as a protest record?
I think, lyrically, it’s like a series of bulletins of what’s going on in the world, a lot of the songs share a similar tone in subject matter. But I’m not sure I know what a protest song is. Some are rallying cries, some deal in offering solace but I’d like to think we’ve come up with something optimistic that people will respond to.