Its safe to say you’d be forgiven for blurting a resounding “Huh??” at the news of pub-rock king Elvis Costello deciding to make an album with Hip-Hop and Soul legends The Roots. Now Elvis Costello may be no stranger to soul – his phenomenal 1980 album Get Happy!! saw the post punk maestro embrace a more R&B approach to songs (though some believe this was only to atone for an alleged racial slur months before). Still, The Roots, with two of the most acclaimed hip hop records of the past 20 years, seem an unlikely backing band for an artist so unassociated with the genre. With an outset of making a record using the ‘methodology’ of hip-hop, does Elvis’ new album Wise Up Ghost shape up to be the bold statement it’s intended to be?
The answer is of course yes – but at a price. From the get go Wise Up Ghost draws you in with an interesting sound such as the one found in opening track and lead single Walk Us Uptown. First and foremost, the instrumentality of The Roots is on top form with original member and drummer Questlove supplying a truly tasty groove joined with a rolling bass line, atmospheric guitars and spooky organ. Costello joins the mix with his characteristic whine, sounding perhaps a little less powerful with age, but he attacks the song with a vicious snarl that can be commended. Its clear to see the versatility of The Roots throughout the album with songs ranging from traditional hip-hop instrumentals in Refuse To Be Saved and Come The Meantimes to much more delicate moments like lullaby-esque Tripwire and the more ballad based/’classic Costello’ If I Could Believe. Lyrically Costello provides a fairly harsh approach in contrast to his former work. Viceroy’s Row includes the killer quip “Made a fortune out of barbed wire in the last days of the empire” before shifting to a lustful snarl with “tears away the veil with her fingernail” in the swinging She Might Be A Grenade.
Although adventurous and musically enjoyable, the album just doesn’t quite generate the level of excitement I think the musicians had in mind. At twelve tracks and over an hour in length some songs feel unnecessarily long, especially in some of the slower songs. The frustrating part is that most of the tracks have potential to suddenly launch into something more explosive. Wake Me Up for example, whilst providing an intoxicatingly groovy rhythm and a crooning Costello, never really goes anywhere, instead deciding to just float on by for six minutes until the end. The possibility of creating a climactic section, where dynamics can go from quiet to loud, is ignored, instead leaving the listener with a disappointingly flaccid end. Similarly, title track Wise Up Ghost churns along the same section for its six and a half minute entirety that, whilst enjoyable, feels like repetition to the point of boredom.
A challenging record, Wise Up Ghost does its job in creating an unlikely yet formidable collaboration, with desirable results. The musicianship of both Costello and The Roots is impressive, making it somewhat unfortunate there seem to be no plans for the acts to tour together. However as a start-to-finish piece of work, the album just fails to go anywhere particularly notable, with anticlimactic and almost dull songs making the album feel a bit unfinished. It is not a bad record by any stretch of the imagination, just nothing to get the blood pumping. As Costello moans on Wake Me Up, “There must be something better than this”, and as a listener, you cant help but relate a little.
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