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Elvis Costello and The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

Elvis Costello and The Roots – 'Wise Up Ghost' album review

A British legend and his US associates revisit the past and come back with something new

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Elvis Costello’s voice is like a treasured old leather jacket: ready to be thrown on in any occasion, battered with age and proving some things get better as they get older. Take the opening track of his new album, ‘Wise Up Ghost’ – a collaboration with hip hop souls The Roots, whose sideline as the house band on ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ brought them together with Costello during his appearances on the show.

That opening track, ‘Walk Us Uptown’ begins with lolloping, cut-up, Roots-style beats before our man on the mic launches straight in with a voice as assuredly rough as it was when we all got to hear, more than 30 years ago, that Oliver’s army was here to stay. There is something distinctly masculine and world-wise about that voice, yet in a moment its joyful lack of consistency sees it crack into a sound more husky and street, and all of a sudden we’re listening to someone who could play daddy to Damon Albarn’s 2D.

‘Wise Up Ghost’ is a celebration of our reuse/recycle times: throughout the album, both halves of the collaboration make the most of the hip hop tradition of cutting up and revising. Notably, the tight and sassy ‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ mashes up Costello classics ‘Pills and Soap’ and ‘Hurry Down Doomsday’ to a new tune. But that’s not to say that this album feels secondhand. Instead, it’s refreshing to hear Costello mix it with a new band and add extra pleasures, like the passionate, feminine presence of La Marisoul (from LA outfit La Santa Cecilia) on ‘Cinco Minutos Con Vos’. The only jarring note is the rock guitar that tries too hard in the middle of the otherwise sassy and soulful title track.

In bygone times Costello might have felt he had to argue his case for recording a country album or working with a classical quartet. Nowadays, though, he is clearly a man so comfortable in his skin that he can afford to cast a backwards lyrical glance and throw his voice out there for someone else’s rhythms (in this case, the fine timings of Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson). So it’s a fruitful collaboration – and yet, on tracks like the croonsome ‘Tripwire’ (which borrows from ‘Satellite’ on 1989’s ‘Spike’) and the fractured beauty of the closing ballad ‘If I Could Believe’, you have to remind yourself that there is more than one star turn in the room. Buy this album here

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