Wise Up Ghost
I’d urge you to put in the work with this album – spend a while soaking it up; there’s a lot to get. Probably all but the keenest of Costello fans/apologists are guilty of listening through to his recent albums – anything from, depending on where you started to drop off, the last decade or the last two decades – once, twice, three times max. And then deciding it another genre-hopping exercise; well this collaboration with The Roots is different. It might be among the more improbable/curious of the Costello collaborations but it’s also among the finest.
Depending on how you come to this, as either a Costello fan or a Roots fan – or, of course, both – there’s a feel that album opener, Walk Us Uptown, was designed to showcase both sides of this collaboration evenly. It’s the slick, almost cynical single; the hook. But damn, it’s also a great song.
From there things get interesting. A slow-burner, with the simmering funk that Questlove has loaned out to D’Angelo and The Roots have provided as backing band to, well, everyone, side one – and it’s wise to think of this as an LP, as a two-sided affair – is all Costello’s show. That doesn’t mean you won’t marvel at Questlove’s precise placement of every single goddamn snare drum crack; you can almost hear the swish of his elbow and forearm in the space provided. And then crack! Perfect. Beautiful. Every single time. But it’s about Costello’s songs, all sinew and grit – plenty of heart in there too, lots of passion.
His hip-hop trick – since, surely, still, people will want to call this his hip-hop album, so obsessed are critics with ticking off what they perceive to be Costello’s genre obsessions – is to cut up the words, to go back to former glories and rewrite, recalibrate, recontextualise. In the process he makes new songs, also calling them the former glories is, in most cases, a bit kind. Costello has gone to the lesser known albums in most cases, even some of the close-to-reviled ones. There’s a string sample from North for instance. And words are taken directly from his most recent album before this, 2010’s National Ransom. There’s a snatch from The Delivery Man and 1991’s Mighty Like A Rose. The most overt theft is the rewrite of Pills and Soap from1983’s Punch The Clock. It’s been made over here as a new song entirely, Stick Out Your Tongue (with a few lines too from Mighty Like A Rose’s Hurry Down Doomsday.
Wake Me Up, a New Orleans stroll, is a repurposing of The Delivery Man’s Bedlam.
But don’t think Costello’s been lazy here, these reshapings, recontextualisations, reimaginings are crafted and clever, but not in a way so as to alienate if you’re not spotting the borrowings. And in the case of Stick Out Your Tongue it seems no coincidence that one of his bitterest indictments of the Thatcher-era he so detested has been reintroduced to the world the year that Maggie died.
Just before Stick Out Your Tongue the gorgeous Tripwire – yet another song built from the parts of other songs (this time using a sample from Satellite off 1989’s Spike) – gives a 1950s crooner/ballad feel to break up the hard-nosed, brittle-but-beautiful funk.
And then it’s to side two.
If you were concerned that The Roots were barely showing up – and you’ll notice them more and more across the whole album the more you listen, it’s a subtle, but almost devastatingly good performance from them – then side two will certainly see ideas from The Roots more prominent.
The songs remain strong, particularly The closing trio of Viceroy’s Row, the title song and If I Could Believe – which has Costello doing the crooning he does so well, but not going too hard on the vibrato, there’s no grate to his vocals here, only great. It’s the best he’s sounded in years. In and around all this the cinematic vibe of The Roots’ undun starts to enter the frame, strings, meandering outros, little ideas – it’s still very much The Roots in the backseat, backing band position. But you just start to notice them even more; noticing too how clever this band is as something that goes so beyond hip-hop all the while embracing the best aspects of hip-hop’s dogma.
The Roots will have another album to come – that’s when they’ll step up and be the other version of the band they are. But here they’ve nailed their supporting role. They’ve also – it would have to be said – reinvigorated Costello. They’ve allowed him to make a record he just would not (could not) have made without them.
Wise Up Ghost is wonderful. Often extraordinary, at times a little baffling and there’s a lot to unpack from it, so many clues, hints and ideas. A chance to for you to go back to the source material and hear some of the gems spread out over the so-called weaker Costello albums.
Surprise of the year really, that this would actually work. That this was not just a gimmick.
And one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long while.