Lowered Expectations: Elvis Costello And The Roots – Wise Up Ghost
Oh, man. Wise Up Ghost should have been the very bestest record this year. It is as if it were chemically designed, built from birth, touched by the hand of God so that it might be everybody’s favorite thing — and yet it just doesn’t quite end up working like it should. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t a bad record by any means. If some people who were NOT Elvis or the Roots released it, you would head-nod and think it made some decent background sound. But this record is a collabo between arguably the best songwriter of his generation (come at me, bro) and the hip-hop band that literally everyone loves. No, really. Even people that hate hip-hop love the Roots. Go ask your mom!
Other reviews of this thing glowingly namecheck Curtis Mayfield and Muscle Shoals and a veritable cavalcade of stars whose light is supposed to be reflected here…and it just isn’t actually there. Mostly what it sounds like is one of Elvis’ less lyrically adept records backed by a band that is talented but not particularly innovative. AND THIS IS NOT OK.
The epic disappointment is epically disappointing because the lead single, “Walk Us Uptown,” is so so good and the video is such a fantastic visual of the song’s vibe:
Look at that thing! The ransom-note-letter lyrics. The old-timey record player. EC’s iconic hat and glasses, Questo’s iconic hair and maybe the exact same glasses. Everything about it is subtly perfect. It whispers in your ears and promises you heaven. And on this song, everything is as if the celestial choir is singing just for you. The pacing is just shy of reggae. The horn stabs are perfectly timed. Questo’s drumming is as rock solid as can be. The strain in Elvis’s voice is just right. No one, and I mean no one, sings out of his range in such an appealing way as Costello can. Remember how beautifully broken his voice sounded on Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach? Now, THERE’S an unexpected collaboration.
The rest of the record just doesn’t live up to the single and this is pretty much the saddest thing of the year so far, music-wise. “Sugar Won’t Work” starts out with some strings that could have been lifted from any big-production country record of the early 1960s and the first verse has Elvis’s voice bobbing along over the top of the bass so nicely. The chorus, though, has Elvis sounding strained in all the wrong ways. Here, his out-of-range singing just sounds like he needs to switch keys, instead of sounding like a tear in your heart a mile wide, like it does on Memory or Almost Blue. “Tripwire” avoids the strained voice problem but ends up sounding completely soul-less thanks to an overly light touch from both Costello and the Roots. “Come the Meantimes” has fantastic strings plinking along in the background and is one of the few times on the record that Costello and the Roots sound in sync vocally. However, the whole thing is marred by a weird dinging triangle/typewriter carriage return sound that pops up at random points in the song that will give you a Telltale-Heart level feeling of hallucination and rage every time it rings.
The title track, like the lead single, is so good it makes your teeth ache. This time the strings are a refugee from a 1960s soundtrack, brightly menacing. The lyrics return to the title again and again as the music grows more complex in the background. The string line gets replaced with a fuzzed out guitar line and then the horns climb right over the top of everything as the Roots provide falsetto backing vocals while Costello stays low, almost talking. The song is so perfectly formed it makes you weep for what could have been had this only extended to the whole record. It’s a collision of all the best parts of popular music from the last 50 years and it makes you just so goddamn pleased that music exists, but even a song that great can’t overcome a generally weak record.
Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wise Up Ghost – is out Tuesday on Blue Note.
Rating: 2 out of 5 kittens with whips. (Sorta Kinda Not Recommended). Honestly, “Walk Us Uptown” could have been released as a double A-side with “Wise Up Ghost” and that would have been a 4-kitten release.