Elvis Costello has seldom played it safe in his choice of collaborators. From Billy Sherrill to the Brodksy Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter to Wendy James, Bill Frisell to Burt Bacharach, eclectic and promiscuous just about covers it.
His latest unlikely partnership is with The Roots, the jazzy neo-hip-hoppers who moonlight as the house band on NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, which is where this union first sparked into life. Having been given carte blanche to deconstruct the likes of "High Fidelity" when backing Costello on the show, talk then turned to The Roots retooling a Costello classic for Record Store Day. That grew into a mooted EP, before both parties realised that they were already in the throes of making an album.
The plan to re-record material from Costello's past was dropped, but the outline of that idea remains visible. Wise Up Ghost is a metatextual affair: on one level its sights are set on new frontiers; on another it's hugely self-referential, constantly recycling words and musical motifs from his back catalogue.
Half of this curious but at times compelling collaboration sets lyrics from old songs to new tracks — though not always to their benefit. "Refuse To Be Saved" marries the words from Mighty Like A Rose's "Invasion Hit Parade" to one of those strident non-melodies that Costello tends to throw at his music when inspiration isn't returning his calls. The skeletal "(She Might Be A) Grenade" reconfigures "She's Pulling Out The Pin" to similarly slight reward. At other times the past is resurrected more effectively. The tender "Trip Wire" revisits the circular doo-wop of "Satellite", while "Wake Me Up" creates a convincing new home for the bloodied words to "Bedlam," from The Delivery Man, setting them to the kind of sparse New Orleans funk which invokes the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's contributions on Spike. There's nothing random about any of it. These are some of Costello's most acerbic, even apocalyptic words, and amount to a full-bore indictment of personal, corporate and political mendacity. The spectral dub of "Walk Us Uptown" sets the tone, Costello crowing: "Keep a red flag flying, keep a blue flag as well / And a white flag in case it all goes to hell." Elsewhere there are swipes at "boom to bust" culture and those who insist that "two and two is five." Musically, Wise Up Ghost is equally stark. A brooding rhythm record most closely resembling the claustrophobic beat-music of When I Was Cruel, it's sweetened only slightly by Brent Fischer's inventive string arrangements and Mexican-American singer La Marisoul, who duets on "Cinco Minutos Con Vos". When the combination works it conjures a sense of foreboding. "Viceroy's Row" — "where all of the nightmares go" — is malevolent and hypnotic, its dragnet groove filled with dubby bass, trippy flute and fluttering layers of backing vocals. "Sugar Won't Work" welds a sharp guitar lick to one of the record's few really persuasive melodies, while the title track is an ominous meditation intoned over feed backing guitar and a string figure sampled from yet another corner of Costello's past. It has drama, poise and — unlike many other tracks here — evolves, rather than staying locked in its rhythmic straitjacket.
Such moments justify this collaboration, yet when Wise Up Ghost goes wrong it goes really wrong. The Roots are tight but a tad slow-footed — hip-hop you can happily take home to mother. "Come The Meantimes" is like G Love & Special Sauce tackling Portishead's "Sour Times", with Isleys guitar tacked to the end. "Stick Out Your Tongue" does unseemly things to "Pills And Soap", laying out one of EC's greatest lyrics like a corpse over a lacklustre jam. For all its purposeful intent, the prevalence of these and other misfires prevent Wise Up Ghost fulfilling its intriguing promise. It's still better than that Anne Sofie von Otter album, though.