Elvis Costello has been down this path before. New collaborators. New sounds. Old songs approached in new directions. On Wise Up Ghost, an album recorded with hip-hop crew the Roots, he slips into a new groove, for him at least, that adds some fresh texture to his old style.
Wise Up Ghost isn't a revolutionary record, not even by Costello's standards. The Roots — one of the finest live bands in America — bend more to the Englishman than he does to them. It sounds like a Costello album and falls in line with his most recent records — 2009 and 2010's Nashville excursions Secret, Profane & Sugarcane and National Ransom, the 2006 album he made with New Orleans great Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse. It's just another stop on his tour of American music.
Because the Roots rarely play by hip-hop's rules, their contributions as backing band don't take on the usual genre connotations. The band's leader and drummer, ?uestlove, is a stickler for R&B tradition, so Wise Up Ghost is more '70s funk than '80s B-boy. The production — by Costello, ?uestlove and longtime Roots associate Steven Mandel — doesn't overemphasize the seams. This is Costello's most natural sounding album in years.
But it's a groove record and not one always suited to Costello's barbed songwriting and occasionally clipped vocal delivery. Plus, it goes on a little too long. As far as songs go, Wise Up Ghost doesn't have too many memorable ones. Those days are long gone for Costello. But there's a renewed toughness in his voice pulled out by the Roots' solid backing. The rhythms nudge him along on songs like the opening "Walk Us Uptown," the sweet-thick "Wake Me Up" and "Stick Out Your Tongue," which reworks his 1983 cut "Pills and Soap."
The textures driving the music — from the warm, climbing keys underlining the biting "Refuse to Be Saved" to the undercurrent of horns gliding through "(She Might Be A) Grenade" — may be Wise Up Ghost's real stars. By running alongside, on top of and beneath Costello, they direct and steer the Roots toward the singer-songwriter's center. In the end, they all come together for an album short on actual songs but long on genuine groove. And for all involved, that's a sizable step.