Album Review: Elvis Costello and The Roots “Wise Up Ghost” (2013)


When I first heard that Elvis Costello and The Roots were going to collaborate together and record an album of new material I was a number of things. Surprised, curious, skeptical just to name a few, but for one sure thing, I was very intrigued to find out how these two completely different artists would sound together and what they would ultimately come up with on record. The result was Wise Up Ghost, which has just been released in the past week or so.

I would describe the sound of Wise Up Ghost as being a mixture of styles. It seems to have a bit of everything from funk to R&B, dub to straight out pop, and even jazz influences. Some of the more Roots-influenced tracks on the album also have a similar groove-based feel to them to the 1970s experimental funk of Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone. That’s just what I think, Costello himself, however, is more descriptive in describing the sound of the album stating that it is a “cauldron full of powders and potions, frogs and fingers, and that’s what I call rock and roll”. With this unusual description I kind of guess where he is coming from in that he is basically saying that it is everything and anything, and doesn’t necessarily need to be labeled in any way. The songs themselves were written from scratch in the studio and started as skeletons before gradually being built up into actual compositions. Considering that the album was initially made with no record label, or indeed deadline attached, there was no pressure on them during the recording process letting them focus entirely on the music and experimenting with sounds.

The Roots themselves as a standalone act are a huge standout on this album and contribute significantly to the overall feel of the album. Just their presence alone transforms Costello’s sound completely, taking it into the realm of funk and R&B to the point where it’s unrecognizable for Costello. Listening to this album you become even more amazed at the musical talents and abilities of The Roots as a band and as musicians, and just how revolutionary they were as a predominantly hip-hop act that played their own instruments. Their ability to adapt their style of playing to suit different artists and styles is simply incredible, and it shows on here as they fit so well with Costello. This might have been a surprise to me at first, but then you realize that a lot of Costello’s early 80s work with the Attractions was influenced by R&B and soul, therefore the fact they work so well together on this release should probably not be entirely surprising in the end.

I’ve talked a bit about the actual collaboration between the two artists, but what about the songs themselves, what actually stands out? Well, the songs are an eclectic mix overall but do not stray too far from the R&B/funk area. “Walk Us Uptown” is a groovy R&B styled track complete with horns and a funky rhythm section, while “Refused to Be Saved” and “Wake Me Up” are both funk-influenced with some nice Herbie Hancock-like keyboard playing. “Trip Wire”, one of the standout tracks on the album is a beautifully sweet pop ballad and offers a nice counter to the more groove-based tracks, while “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” has a slow trip-hop feel to it. In fact, if Costello wasn’t singing you could be forgiven for thinking this song was a lost Massive Attack track. Finally, album closer “If I Could Believe” is a track which is reminiscent of the work Costello did in the late 90s with Burt Bacharach and has a sort of slow piano based pop-jazz sound to it. This track is one the standouts on the album and is also a nice tender way to close the album when you consider the albums overall complexity and the immense detail of some of the tracks.

Wise Up Ghost has had a positive response from music critics and has been well received for its imaginative nature and detail, while Costello’s chameleon knack of going from style to style across releases has also gotten a favorable mention. Some criticisms I would have of the album would be that there are a couple of lesser tracks which didn’t really appeal to me, most notably “She Might Be a Grenade” and title track “Wise Up Ghost”, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Some of the tracks are also a bit labor-intensive to listen to and tend to go on too long without doing much of interest to the listener. Such criticisms, however, do not take away from the overall feel of the album and the depth of quality on display. In conclusion, I would say this collaboration was a success, and I applaud both The Roots and Elvis Costello for attempting something that initially to me seemed quite radical. This album took quite an effort to listen to at first as the material is quite complex in places and at times can tend to waver a bit from any particular formula or song structure, but it does get better with each listen and with this comes even greater appreciation. So overall an interesting and probably worthwhile collaborative experiment by these two artists and in the end all I can say is that if you give this album a fair go it is definitely a grower.
– Sam



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