It shouldn't work. Elvis Costello, the angry young man turned cantankerous cynic behind some of the best cerebral rock ever written (see My Aim is True, This Year's Model and Imperial Bedroom), has been in studio over the course of a year with The Roots, the legendary hip-hop outfit who proved that the genre could do live instrumentation as well as any other. You're probably thinking what everyone else was when the artistic partnership was announced: what?
But somehow, Costello's acidic sneer, Mark Kelley's funkadelic bass and ?uestlove's jazz-inspired drums combine organically to make Wise Up Ghost one of The Roots' strongest efforts, and Costello's best album since his split with The Attractions nearly two decades ago.
Costello's hip-hop inspired verbal spitfire on tracks like "Refuse to Be Saved" and "Stick Out Your Tongue" is no far cry from his conversational vocals on his early masterpieces, and The Roots — who have proven their aptitude as a backing band during their stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — lend Costello's songwriting an energy and liveness his most recent albums have been sorely lacking.
The album's diverse instrumentation, most notably the sousaphone accompaniment of Tuba Gooding Jr., gives the songs a smooth jazz feel that soften the blow of Costello's often accusatory, sardonic lyrics. Though some tracks, such as the R&B groove of "Wake Me Up," flirt with easy-listening tropes, Costello's wordplay and The Roots' soulful accompaniment give Wise Up Ghost enough bite to avoid being described as — heaven forbid — adult contemporary.
Considering his reputation during his early years as indie rock's Johnny Rotten, it's ironic how often Costello endures accusations of softness and acquiescence. It's refreshing to see that, with the release of Wise Up Ghost, an artist with so many albums under his belt still has a few tricks up his sleeve.