Elvis Costello & Questlove

The first thing to understand about Wise Up Ghost is that it isn’t a vanity project. Yes, the new LP, released yesterday on Blue Note, is a full-length collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Roots. And yes, full-length collaborations between well-known artists sometimes end up as mere historical curiosities (Jay-Z and R. Kelly’s Best Of Both Worlds comes to mind) rather than blockbuster team-ups (Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne comes to mind). But Questo, Costello, and company seem to have put their all into this album, and the results are favorable. It might be a lark, but it’s an exceedingly pleasant lark.

Wise Up Ghost has little chance of becoming a blockbuster in that Watch The Throne sense — not much of a radio market for new Elvis Costello joints these days, and even the Roots don’t get a lot of burn on urban stations anymore — but it seems likely to go down as one of history’s more favorably received collaborations, a lock to be included in listicles about the best collaborative LPs forevermore. That’s because it’s made up of lively songs fleshed out with rich arrangements performed by seasoned musicians who seem fully invested. You could put it on at a party and please your peers and your parents alike, but it’s better than one of those Starbucks-approved CDs that function like coffee table books. It makes the morning commute just a little funkier, the barbecue a bit richer. This album is not a masterpiece, but it’s more than a talking piece — although it is that, too. Sit back and dissect it with fellow music nerds and watch in amusement as an influence-spotting contest takes shape. Wise Up Ghost is a success that could have been a laughingstock. It’s worth considering what went right.

For one thing, both parties here are music obsessives whose record collections probably include plenty examples of experiments gone wrong. Like Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, they’re probably sensitive to history and conscious of legacy. There’s a certain measure of quality control that comes along with living your life attuned to the media and immersed in a stack of vinyl at the same damn time. These guys are too savvy and self-aware to release a Lulu. Costello and the Roots have each had dips in their discography, inessential albums that don’t measure up to the classics in their respective discographies, but neither artist has ever shit the bed. They simply wouldn’t allow it. So maybe we should have realized ahead of time that whatever this pairing came up with would pass muster.

Wise Up Ghost also emerged organically from a budding partnership that was already showing signs of life. In other words, it wasn’t a contrived marketing ploy like that Jay-Z/Linkin Park mashup record Collision Course. Per Billboard’s interview with Costello and Questlove, the idea for an album sprung from Costello’s performances with the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where “The Greatest Band In Late Night” has backed up countless musical guests. The Roots don’t make records with everybody who rolls through 30 Rock, so the chemistry must have been palpable. They even compared it to a dating relationship. The best records in this category always seem to start that way, be it Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s “This Is The Dream Of Evan And Chan” spawning the Postal Service’s widely beloved Give Up or the gradually strengthening gravitational pull nurtured in the projects that preceded El-P and Killer Mike’s Run The Jewels. (Speaking of which: Let’s get James Blake and Chance The Rapper together in the studio ASAP, cool?) Like the success stories that preceded it, this record didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

Another bit from that Billboard interview sheds some light on the success of Wise Up Ghost. Costello mentioned that many of these songs are built from spare fragments he’d been collecting over the course of decades. Anyone who’s ever committed significant time to writing music can relate: What songwriter doesn’t have unfinished bits of songs lying around that just refuse to come together? When a musician finally does find a way to bring those old unfinished favorites to life, there’s a certain loving devotion involved, a joy inherent in seeing your problem children become the progeny you always wished they could become. Turns out working with the Roots was just the right creative crucible to rescue Costello’s castoffs from the obscurity of demos and notebooks.

Costello and the Roots also have a history with this sort of thing. Whatever natural inclination they have toward teamwork has been sharpened through experience. Costello already logged combined LPs with (deep breath) Richard Harvey, John Harle, Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Bill Frisell, Marian McPartland, and Allen Toussaint. He’s a serial collaborator. So are the Roots; even before they were backing up everybody from Carly Rae Jepson to Tyler, The Creator on TV, they were scoring hits with Cody ChesnuTT (“The Seed 2.0” is an obvious precursor to their work here), serving as the band for Jay-Z: Unplugged and recording full-lengths with John Legend and Betty Wright. Certain artists just take to that perpetual collaboration — your Mark Lanegans, Will Oldhams, and Wayne Coynes. Be proud, Mom and Dad: They play well with others. (Well, mostly.)

You know what else characterizes those kinds of musicians, though? They move on. Wise Up Ghost is a delightful record, but a second set from these guys almost guarantees diminishing returns. Think about Wilco and Billy Bragg’s first Mermaid Avenue versus the second volume. As with movies, sequels aren’t guaranteed to fall short of the original — shout out to The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather: Part II and Spider-Man 2 etc. etc. etc. — but it seems like the best way for these rampant collaborators to keep the juices flowing is to move along to the next fling. There’s a reason bands that stick together with the same lineup eventually calcify into a certain degree of sameness. Even Radiohead, a band that once seemed bent on revising its aesthetic, has fallen into a relatively placid comfort zone. The same thing happened to Wilco once they were able to keep the same lineup together for more than one album at a time. So while I’m eager to see what kind of concoction the Roots and Costello come up with next, I hope it’s not together. Their kind can only cross-pollinate the same way so many times before the buzz starts to wear off.

Comments (17)
  1. Don’t forget Elton John & Leon Russell with “The Union” back in 2010. That album is terrific, albeit a touch long-winded. Plus it has a good back story. And Neil Young is on a track.

  2. Elvis Costello called Ray Charles a nigger and my Dad has never forgiven him.

    • I also heard that Elvis Costello referred to B.B. King as a “Fat, lazy black man” when they were both on the same bill for a concert. It’s a shame if all of this is true, I used to listen to E.C. and enjoyed his records, now I just cringe when I see him. I think he’s jumping on an opportunity to boost his sagging ratings by “using” one of the the most gifted and talented artists of the past 15 years, The Roots. I hope the money is worth it for them, otherwise I wouldn’t do it, but not even the money matters because it is an issue of integrity and respect which E.C. doesn’t seem to have. Blech…………..

      • Questlove asked Elvis if they could work together so who is using who? Also, I never heard about the B.B. King rumor, but the Ray Charles story is ancient, drunken, very stupid history – a dumb attempt to get a rise out of a bunch of drunk American musicians. It worked and very nearly derailed Elvis’ career. Sam Moore, Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, and Questlove, to name but a few extremely talented African Americans who have collaborated with E.C., appear to have forgiven him. Perhaps Dad should give E.C. a chance.

      • That story is older than I am, and Elvis has apologized for it a million times. We can stop trotting that out, I think? And The Roots are NOT stupid. If Elvis really were a dirty old racist, it’s safe to assume this collaboration never would have happened. Let’s get over it, and acknowledge that one of the best songwriters of the 20th Century and one of the most exciting hip-hop groups in the ever teaming up for an album is an exciting thing, shall we?

        • Your right, he’s not a dirty old racist. Just a dirty old anti-semite who won’t play in Israel based on a lack of knowledge about the middle east and tying performance and politics way too closely to the citizens that actually respect and buy his music. C’mon even his wife played there.

          • He’s not the only artist to not play Israel and he has his own reasons, all of which have nothing to do with religion. I mean it’s fine to criticize him for his opinions on Israel but calling him an anti-semite because of it is ridiculous. Especially when he’s married to Diana Krall who is indeed a Jewish woman.

          • Your right. He might not be an anti-semite, but he’s following a view that people generally formulate based on other anti-semitic views they have. Otherwise, there would be no reason to not support israel in this situation because it literally is a black vs white/good vs evil/right vs wrong conflict. There is no way to think differently.

          • Are you combating an allegedly myopic viewpoint of a situation with another myopic viewpoint of a situation? No situation is ever just black and white. Ever. (See, I can play this game too!)

  3. “You know what else characterizes those kinds of musicians, though? They move on. Wise Up Ghost is a delightful record, but a second set from these guys almost guarantees diminishing returns. Think about Wilco and Billy Bragg’s first Mermaid Avenue versus the second volume. As with movies, sequels aren’t guaranteed to fall short of the original — shout out to The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather: Part II and Spider-Man 2 etc. etc. etc. — but it seems like the best way for these rampant collaborators to keep the juices flowing is to move along to the next fling.”

    UGH. What a lazy theory. By this logic, Costello shouldn’t have made a second album with The Attractions after This Year’s Model. So long, Armed Forces, Get Happy!! and IbMePdErRoIoAmL, and all those other “sequels.”

    A second album between Costello and The Roots COULD be a lazy sequel, IF they set out to make “Wise Up Ghost Part II.” But give them a little bit of credit that they might have more ambition and musical ingenuity than that, and that there might be a second idea they’d want to pursue… Or a third or a fourth, for that matter.

    I don’t understand what the point is of speculating that if Costello and The Roots made a second album, they would do it badly just because you have a limited imagination. Your example is that Billy Bragg and Wilco did a second volume of Woody Guthrie songs, therefore there’s no point in anyone else making more than one album together. Shout out to a trio of Movie Sequels (?) as if that was a valid comparison and then a slam on Radiohead and how you feel they eventually became less innovative over time.

    Yes, if only Radiohead had followed your formula and called it quits after ONE album together, then they’d be remembered as the band who made Pablo Honey.

    • I seem to agree with Chris on this one. The reason why this works ONCE, in my opinion, is because it’s a juxtaposition of sounds from artists of two completely different backgrounds. The Roots, of course, are a super flexible band that can jam to pretty much any type of music (yet, always with a hip-hop flair), but EC has to step out of his comfort zone a little bit more, and that’s a big appeal of the sound here. If he were to make another album with The Roots, I think it would automatically seem like an overwrought idea. Even if the album were just as good as the last, it would be seen as a diminishing return because it had been done before, and really the whole appeal of an EC/Roots collaboration is the mix of hip-hop and the signature EC-style.

      As for movie sequels, I’ll have to agree with you… we all know Mighty Ducks 2 is better than the first. The world asked “can this rag-tag group of miscreants be brought together by a puck and Emilio Estevez, do it all over again, and take down communist Iceland in the meantime?!” The answer was a resounding yes, yes they can. I know Iceland isn’t communist, but the movie is more triumphant in my mind if they are communist… and Russian. But I digress…

    • Dawg, not saying all musicians should reshuffle after one album. Just saying these itinerant collaborator types are better served to keep mixing it up. world_on_a_string explained it well, so much so that I’m willing to consider his theory about D2: The Mighty Ducks.

      • Yea man. If you ignore the major plot holes, suspicious lack of parental supervision, and just get yourself wrapped in the spirit of the movie you’ll see what I mean. Kenan Thompson’s first knuckle puck still gets me every time!

  4. Also, how awesome is this? Got my wish re: James Blake + Chance The Rapper: http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2013/09/chance-rapper-has-more-music-with-james-blake-on-the-way/

  5. I just think it’s so weird to assume that this is the ONLY kind of album Costello & The Roots could make together.

    If they did a second album and it once again revisited older Costello songs and repurposed lyrics, and it had a similar feel to it, then yes, of course, that would be a mistake. But I think if they chose to do a second album it would probably be because they had a new idea. Costello has rarely repeated the same kind of album twice, and The Roots are, indeed, a super flexible band. There is almost zero reason to automatically assume that a 2nd album would resemble this one.

    I guess the only thing to do is wait and see– if they make a second album, I’ll meet you both back here to duke it out over whether it was a mistake or not!

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