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.