Costello and The Roots “Wise Up”

Elvis Costello & The Roots take trip-hop by storm with their debut collaboration “Wise Up Ghost.”  With Costello’s signature funk/punk moody swank hybrid and unmistakable phrasing, this eclectic album catches the ear from the first electronic pulse.

Courtesy of Associated Press

Courtesy of Associated Press

The original pieces are not only ambitious and interesting; they have that jazzy vamping twist that recalls “Supreme Beings of Leisure.”  “Ghost” isn’t an attempt at an aging legend to remain relevant, it proves he is as strong as ever. And apparently he actually listens to current music on the scene, too.

“Ghost” is undeniably an experimental album — much of the sound seems “found” (even if it isn’t), and one of the few problems with the album overall edges in on the track “Refuse to Be Saved,” which is a redux of Costello’s 1991 “Invasion Hit Parade” but marred by an attempt at rapping that would have been better left undone.  The issue with the re-working of multiple formerly released tracks is that the originals were in all ways superior.

Not quite halfway through the album, a throwback masterpiece appears. “Tripwire” is deceptively simple with its lullaby melody line and Buddy Holly-inspired wholesomeness.  But listen to the lyrics — it’s pure Elvis Costello irony in full horrible/wonderful juxtaposition of beauty and atrocity.  This waltz has the sound of a first dance at a wedding, but the content of Costello’s lyrics will satisfy somewhat older fans that grew up on the unassuming satire of “Tramp the Dirt Down” (“Spike,” 1989) and “Oliver’s Army” (“Armed Forces,” 1979). Younger fans may require a history lesson to fully appreciate Costello’s corpus of work.

“Stick Out Your Tongue” is another redux — this time of Costello’s eerie, provocative “Pills and Soap,” sans the haunting minor chord reminiscent of the Terry Gilliam sci-fi masterpiece “Twelve Monkeys.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate the hip hop-inspired effort at sampling — but sampling oneself belies either conceit or an implicit fear of intellectual copyright litigation.

“Come the Meantimes” is one particular track that has an eclectic mesh of SBL-inspired backbeat and found sounds.  The tinny egg timer is a particularly delightful touch, having all of the appeal of an old-fashioned English doorbell, while haunting enough due to its resemblance to the sinister elevator ding used to ultimate suspense in “Die Hard.”

“(She Might Be a) Grenade,” apart from being deliciously dark, is amazingly complex with vocal overlays, funk fusion, symphonic strings that seem to creep in from the netherverse, and trippy underwater tones as well as an execution drumroll to start off the track on the right note.  The sheer volume of lyrics contained in this track is a feat — but considering Costello’s former works (which must’ve by now won him a World Record for most lyrics crammed masterfully into a single song), this shouldn’t be surprising.

“Cinco Minutos Con Vos” reprises what Costello fans expect from The Imposter: deep bass brass, sweeping strings, a sexy beat; the Spanish-language lush female voice is a nice addition.  Songs like these only lack the high-energy nuance of Steve Nieve’s wild, high-pitch piano from Costello’s days with The Attractions.  This particular song makes me wonder what an Elvis Costello/“Bitter:Sweet” duet would sound like.

Speaking of which, the intro to “Viceroy’s Row” sounds straight from a “Bitter:Sweet” trip-hop intro. It is interesting that Costello — who went from pop-punk to vintage-style crooner with his 1996 “All This Useless Beauty” — seems to be taking his cues from the vampish, female trip-hop artists more than the traditionally masculine sound of sampling artists.  The intricate, otherworldly sound of the bridge in “Row” is particularly alluring.

The album’s titular song, “Wise Up Ghost,” borrows a bit from the traditional sampling style of the trip-hop genre, but without losing its suspenseful, vamping edge. The repetitive strings stanza later referenced by electronic instruments increases this element of suspense, and Costello’s unfaltering lyrics take us deep into a dystopian nightmarescape that are a portmanteau of nursery rhymes and the reality of war: “Old woman livin’ in a cardboard shoe/Lost so many souls she don’t know what to do/So say your prayers ‘cause down the stairs it’s 1932” — just deconstructing these lyrics could require a separate article.

“Wise Up Ghost” ends with a seemingly sweet ballad, “If I Could Believe.”  The track begins with a soft piano and the sentiment: “If I could believe/Two and two was five/Two wrongs make a right;” this is everything we expect (and more) from the lyrical master of the 20th — and now 21st — century.

For those inclined, it is worth buying the Deluxe album, which contains three bonus tracks: “My New Haunt” has a dense funk feel and showcases Costello’s rich lower vocal register, while the female back-up members lend a gospel choir aspect to the track.  “Can You Hear Me?” oddly sounds a bit like a Trent Reznor composition… with a brass section.  Although somewhat repetitive, the brass complements Costello’s drowned-out vocals and dissonant harmony/melody lines.  “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings” is a gem that sounds straight from the marvelous ballad-heavy “All This Useless Beauty.”  “Puppet” is among Costello’s moodiest sentimental ballads, in the ranks of “The Birds Will Still Be Singing” and “Almost Blue.”


RECOMMENDED: Solo or collab, Costello still reigns his status as one of the best musical artists of the past three decades.