Review Summary: A great project that brings the best from both camps.
Elvis Costello is just shy of David Bowie in terms of an aptitude for reinvention - he's gone through punk rock, new wave, alternative rock, post-punk, pop, R&B, reggae, roots rock, and country. Regardless of any overlap between those labels throughout the years, he's definitely shown himself to have a love for trying new things, which makes Wise Up Ghost
less of a shock than it should be. Aging Irish punk rocker teaming up with a much fresher hip-hop band isn't anywhere near as surprising as it sounds, given the love for both their own crafts and the crafts of others that the artists share. It's their distinct artistic styles as well as their shared traits that both gives the project focus and brings out the best from both camps.
Wise Up Ghost
is a groovy album. I say that non-ironically, without the faintest trace of hippie stereotype in my thought process - the album's big focus is on the grooves laid down by the Roots, and Costello's usual tense and biting vocal performance. Stretched across the album are horns, cinematic strings, walking and rumbling basslines, slick guitar licks, synth and organ and piano, soulful vocals, and a smattering of instrumental effects and distortions. The instrumentation gives the album a consistent upbeat feel to contrast with Costello's devil-may-care attitude, only occasionally dipping into more straight-faced fare - in particular the two ballads, "Tripwire" and the Orwell-referencing "If I Could Believe", and the ominous Cheshire Cat of a title track. But the consistency should not be mistaken for a lack of variety - "Cinco Minutos Con Vos" fittingly provides a Latin vibe, and "Come the Meantimes" is the closest that Costello has gotten and may ever get to a fully-fledged hip-hop song. Wise Up Ghost
as a whole, though, is definitely a hip-hop album, however quirky and funk-oriented.
Alas, the album drags a bit despite (or because of) the grooves and funkiness, especially on the above ballads and the verses of "She Might Be a Grenade". Even some of the best tracks here, like "Stick Out Your Tongue" and "Wake Me Up" stretch their expiration dates to a breaking point, nearly hitting six minutes but too lacking in grandiosity to make that time feel completely warranted. Still, the Roots' work is what drives the album forward, a modern counterpoint to Costello's aged wit, capturing both catchiness and technical mastery of their instruments.
That aged wit is the other half of Wise Up Ghost
, delivered through Costello's quavering voice that he's never lost control of. He manages to take a hip-hop trope and makes it his own by referencing past lyrics and songs. "Pills and Soap", a driving yet morose piano song from his album Punch the Clock
is refashioned and transformed into the watery "Stick Out Your Tongue", which drips with tension and gives the darkly abstract subject matter a more world-weary tone than the original. But Costello doesn't rest on the songs he's already written; the new lyrics at hand are of his usual sardonic style, mostly concentrated on religious themes like his collaboration The River in Reverse
with Allen Toussaint was. On "Refuse to Be Saved", he hisses "The former dictator was impeccably behaved/They're mopping up all the stubborn ones who just refuse to be saved", and "Wake Me Up" features the juxtaposed image of holiness and unholiness: "I've got this phosphorescent portrait of gentle Jesus meek and mild/I've got this harlot that I'm stuck with carrying another man's child". The lyrics tend to be more interesting when examined then they are when heard, but they're still exceptional and are prone to getting trapped in your head, along with the horn melodies and basslines.
Wise Up Ghost
is not a peak in the career of either artist, but their creativity and ability to blend their styles is certainly impressive. It's certainly a project that deserves a place amongst each discography.