This week I review a comeback of sorts for one of my favorite artists.
"Wise Up Ghost" Elvis Costello
I already knew this album was going to be interesting, if not as memorable as Mr. Costello's past iconic works "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces." Those blistering efforts with his superb backing band the Attractions are more than 30 years old now, and Costello has grown from an angry young man with a gift for a hook and barbed-wire lyrics to a literate and electric artist.
It's not that any of his works in between weren't of merit. In fact, some of his best work have been experiments and collaborations with everyone from Burt Bacharach to the Count Basie Band to Tony Bennett to Bruce Springsteen to Roy Orbison to Paul McCartney to the Brodsky String Quartet. He's become a respected figure and even hosted his own talk show, where he proved himself a canny and extremely delightful host. This came after sitting in as guest host for a week on "The David Lettermen Show."
He's funny. He's whip-smart. He's poetic, and he's married to jazz diva Diana Krall. He's not quite 60 yet. What else is there left to do?
Simple. Get together with ?uestlove from the hip-hop ensemble known as the Roots - also late night host Jimmy Fallon's regular band - and come up with another collaboration.
The Roots and Elvis Costello? Well, why not.
"Wise Up Ghost" could have just been another notch in Costello's never-ending quest to do something quirky and different but ultimately for Elvis fans only. And if that's all that dig this album that would be too bad, because the simple answer is the Roots and Costello treated this album seriously.
Serious enough to be one of the best efforts in both of their canons as well as one of the year's best albums.
It may seem like the most unlikely of matched pairs, but not only does it work, it shines. It's also a deeply dark album that is nothing like either artist has ever done before.
"Wise Up Ghost" is an excursion into this modern fabric we refer to as "American society," and it's a damning indictment indeed. From a time when school shooting massacres to the inertia and dysfunctionality of our political leaders to get anything done dominate the never-ending media hype machine, it's clear we are a nation polarized and ready for the downfall, yet another one of many empires to fall.
Costello's Nero not only fiddles while the nation burns, he adds fuel to the fire by giving a play-by-play account of the disintegration of a nation. And that nation happens to be you and me, pill-by-pill and murder-by-murder.
While people may feel that but are unable to put it into words, Costello and the Roots do so, and quite brutally, which has always been Costello's bile of choice.
No one writes and sings with a more cynical bullseye, and the Roots give him the hooks and room to be himself.
From the "murder mile" lyricism of "Walk Us Uptown" to the apocalyptic warning of "Wise Up Ghost," Costello and the Roots take us on a trip before the looking glass and come up with an answer that isn't pretty to witness.
The stern warning also comes with a fair amount of despair that it might already be too late. After all, Costello is British, and he's old enough to be aware of the fall of the mighty British empire.
For those of you who love trippy and literate, clever wordplay with unparalleled melody, "Wise Up Ghost" is for you. For those of you who don't, you can't claim you weren't warned. It's all here in stunning black and white. Good luck.