Elvis Costello And The Roots ‘Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs’ Album Review

Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs is the album Elvis Costello always had in him, the record that would knock his contemporaries flat on their asses and get them thinking “where in hell did that come from?” Turns out it came from collaboration, and unexpected collaboration at that, for Elvis to forge even further ahead from his 2010 return to form in that year’s mostly successful outing with T-Bone Burnett, which was entitled National Ransom. While we liked it, we certainly didn’t love it, but we were way off the mark: we clamored for a return to his King of America days.

This new record involves both The Roots and the co-production of the vastly talented Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Steven Mandel. It’s noteworthy that The Roots get co-billing, because this release is so much more than Elvis getting a few superstars to back him up on various tunes. In fact, this is just as much a Roots album as it is a Costello record, but it’s also much more than the sum of its parts, mostly, we suspect, due to the superb arrangements, the densely textured sound, and the addition of the Brent Fischer Orchestra on five of the album’s twelve tracks. And ?uestlove’s drumming throughout is spectacular. His tasteful, inventive and forceful work on this record alone should prove inspiring to a few thousand drummers who may have been relying a little too heavily on electronics and not enough on mechanics. He is a powerhouse in both analogue, vintage drumming and the elaborate complex electronic mixes he develops in close quarters with co-producer Mandel, with whom he has worked since 2008. Mandel himself has described Wise Up Ghost as “my dream project”.

Says Costello:

“This is a band that does what I’ve done from the start: they draw off everything, all types of music.”

Central to the album’s distinctive sonic palette is the work of Korey Riker on tenor and baritone saxophones, and as well as that of Elvis himself on Wurlitzer Electric Piano. He also plays a pretty mean distorted guitar on several tracks. Surprising, though, and damned exciting, are the vocal contributions of Diane Birch on ‘Tripwire’, and Marisoul on ‘Cinco Minutos Convos’.

Instructive in the understanding of this highly original project of masterful songs (and this is a group of songs, as opposed to being a thematic concept), is that Costello, Thompson and Mandel are credited as co-authors in every instance but one, the closing track ‘If I Could Believe’. Hence, the imaginative musical constructions paired to Costello’s lyrical brilliance remind one more of albums from David Byrne/Talking Heads/Steely Dan than that of Costello’s past. An example of this is the title track: ‘Wise Up Ghost’, which is simply unimaginable given Costello’s previous catalogue (essential as it is), and which advances Costello, The Roots, and modern rock music itself. A bold statement, perhaps, but this is one hell of a bold record. Even on the closing track, which is a fairly traditional Costello number, the tune ends with a startling cello exclamation point courtesy of The Brent Fischer Orchestra.

The album also harkens back to, and consciously invokes, past experiments, with its album cover design being credited to the City Lights series of books, edited by the jazz/beat poet and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was City Lights who was daring enough to publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl back in 1956. There was a time when no young American writer worth his salt didn’t worship Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of The Mind as well as Howl, and Gregory Corso’s Marriage. The union of jazz beats and street poetry was a revolution in American thought and letters, and here, with Wise Up Ghost, Costello ups the ante. The man can really write, there was never any doubt about that, but he’s never been in better form, musically, vocally or lyrically:

“She’s slipping off the hook/unbuttoning her dress/
She’s slipping off the hook/
There’s just enough to make some man a mess”
-from (She Might Be A) ‘Grenade’

In closing, we’ll ask you to consider the recent remarks from ?uestlove:

“You think they’ll consider this classic!???? huh?!?! huh?!?!”

Bloody well right. A classic.