Listen: Wise Up Ghost

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Article Reviews

Elvis Costello and The Roots (Blue Note, 2013)

The coupling might raise a few eyebrows, but Elvis Costello and hip-hop outfit The Roots have more in common than one might think.

The Roots’ performances—fluent in jazz, soul, and funk—distinguish them from their peers in the rap world, where live instruments can be rare. And Costello has dabbled in as many musical idioms over the years as he has recorded albums, often to memorable effect.

The seeds for this unlikely joint effort were sown during Costello’s appearances on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots are the house band. The record certainly carries a freewheeling vibe from those informal early sessions, with almost half of the songs being more than five minutes long. That gives Costello ample space to talk about what’s on his mind—chiefly, corruption and vice in their many forms: political and spiritual, personal and corporate.

On the album’s opener, “Walk Us Uptown,” Costello snarls, “Will you walk us uptown / while our tears run in torrents / to suffer in silence or pray for some solace.” Bitterness gives way to a weariness with propaganda on “Tripwire”: “You’re either for or against us / and that is how the hatred begins.”

But is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Costello’s vocals are as inspired as ever, and The Roots drummer Questlove’s backbeats hit hard. But the flabby arrangements threaten to eclipse the obvious chemistry—that The Roots’ funk grooves are a natural vehicle for Costello’s sharp delivery. There’s some unrealized potential here.

While Wise Up Ghost doesn’t succumb to the usual downfall of supergroup recordings—talent canceling out talent—neither does it count as either artist’s essential listening. But one gets the sense that their ambitions were perhaps more modest. It’s more an after-hours, loose-tie affair. Attendance is optional, but you won’t be sorry you were there.

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 12, page 42).