The way you react to news of this pairing says something about your appetite for pretension. Roots drummer/mastermind ?uestlove self-describes as “your favorite Twitterer’s favorite music snob,” and in recent years has built enough bridges to Indie Town that he now qualifies for government contracts. Meantime, Mr. Costello is the sort to send George Jones a demo tape, in order to demonstrate how the Possum might cover Springsteen. (That’s on the deluxe version of Kojak Variety, if you care.) Put them together, and things could get a wee bit over-studied, right?
Yet more than half of Wise Up Ghost is faultless: more exciting and hooky than much recent work from either camp. Opener “Walk Us Uptown” is where ?uestlove shows he can best the beats on Elvis’ prior R&B testimonies. (Yes, even Get Happy!!) “Sugar Won’t Work” offers the kind of keyboard-trill funk that only record-nerd aesthetes know how to execute. (The pacing is smooth, while the textures run gritty.) And the arrangement on “Refuse to Be Saved” is masterful: Between the digi-crunch chordal comping, the ensemble-horn punches, some orchestral accents, and an organ part, things easily could sound cluttered. Yet there’s sufficient room left in the mix for the drummer to get some.
Is such joyous record-making always “stark and dark,” as Questlove promised in his pre-release gushing? Not compared to the Roots far more overwrought 2011 album undun — and that’s a good thing. Nor is Costello much heard going “HAM on some ole Ezra Pound shit,” as ?uesto also threatened. (File that under “Whew!” as well.) The most familiar lyrics here are Elvis’ own, actually, swiped from songs both recent (“She’s Pulling Out the Pin”) and ancient (the Thatcher-era “Pills and Soap”). Lyrically, too, Wise Up Ghost puts its pop-historical smarts to good use, improving on the backdrops for our would-be poet’s witty abstractions. The Roots’ mid-tempo boom-bap turns out to be an even more convincing environment for the world-weary protagonist of “Wake Me Up” than the musical tableau that Costello’s band of Imposters cooked up back when the song was an apocalyptic rocker titled “Bedlam.”
Elvis’ past music is likewise made available for Roots-y reinterpretation, and this also brings benefits, most remarkably, when the “Satellite”-sampling marvel “Tripwire” announces itself as the soulful-with-a-soft-touch ballad that Costello likely couldn’t have finessed on his own. (Could Prince maybe give ?uestlove as free a hand with his back catalog, pretty please?) Samples from Costello’s least-loved album, 2003’s jazz-croony North, crop up as the symphonic fodder in “Sugar Won’t Work” and the title track; you can almost hear Elvis boasting, “History knows I’m right. I’ll get people to dig these nuggets if it’s the last… thing… I… do.”
Elsewhere, “She Might Be a Grenade” doesn’t sample, but instead subtly quotes Costello’s insistent guitar riff from “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over).” This works also, but directly afterward, somewhat mysteriously, the album’s energy flags through its final third: Elvis’ torchy sensibility is over-indulged, and ?uestlove’s filtering process doesn’t feel as active. Still, this is far better than either entity’s fanbase had the right to expect from artists who are famous for having too many side projects already. Who will notice if, upon close inspection, they don’t seem to say much about our slumbering era? You’ve got to give it to perennial over-achievers: sometimes they even know how to make extra-credit assignments sound like A+ work.