DAY FORTY-ONE: WISE UP GHOST AND OTHER SONGS
"Day Of Release" sounds like it could be the title of an Elvis Costello song, which would no doubt take full advantage of the phrase’s multiple meanings— spiritual, carnal and also relating to both the Record Industry and the Penal System.
Today— Tuesday, 9/17— is the official release date for the new Elvis Costello & The Roots album, unless you live someplace like the UK, where new music comes out on Mondays. But for those who were unable to wait, Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs began leaking and streaming over a week ago, when torrent sites started offering illegal mp3 downloads and websites like National Public Radio and The Guardian began offering legal streaming audio of the entire record.
So I’ve been living with Wise Up Ghost for a week now, and I received my deluxe CD and vinyl LP edition at the Brooklyn Bowl concert last night (before watching Costello & The Roots practically demolish a bowling alley with the intensity of their 11-minute performance of “I Want You.”)
So far, the critics’ reactions to the collaboration have tended to fall into two categories: surprise at the “Odd Couple” pairing of Costello & The Roots and non-surprise at how much sense it makes. (The reviews that think it’s a shocker usually have a paragraph listing all of Costello’s previous “surprising” collaborations, which makes me almost envious at their ability to be surprised by things.)
The biggest difference I detect in this new partnership is that there is a slight reversal of roles compared to some of Costello’s previous high-profile collaborations. In the past, when Costello has paired with songwriters like Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint, the momentum has tended to be Costello the musical enthusiast shining the spotlight on an elder musician he admires, with them usually developing a reciprocal respect, admiration and awe through the process of working with him.
Wise Up Ghost might be the first major instance where that balance is slightly different, with Questlove and producer Steven Mandel admittedly major Costello fans from well before he first joined The Roots to perform "High Fidelity" and "(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon four years ago.
"I just knew that I didn’t want to do anything less than an album that will hold up in 20 years, a top-10 Elvis Costello album. An album that a 24-year-old me would freak out about.”
The album’s first single, "Walk Us Uptown," was released back in July with a lyric video featuring Costello and Questlove sitting down to listen to the song on a portable record player.
It’s a song that grabs hold and doesn’t let go, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head (in a good way.)
As a frequent contributor to The Chris Gethard Show, I was recently a guest on Hallie Bulleit’s Ukulele Army web series, where we performed a ukulele-and-kazoo arrangement of “Pump It Up” accompanied by Gethard on the Bulbul Tarang. I found it impossible to resist throwing in a verse from "Walk Us Uptown" into our cover.
Hallie Bulleit’s Ukulele Army:
"Pump It Up/Walk Us Uptown" (lead vocal: Connor Ratliff; ukulele & kazoo: Hallie Bulleit; bulbul tarang: Chris Gethard)
"Sugar Won’t Work" begins with the glorious sound of The Brent Fischer Orchestra which seems to blend seamlessly into a fragment of Costello’s own string arrangement from the song "You Left Me In The Dark" as Questlove’s drums kick in. This subtle, almost imperceptible merging of the old and new is indicative of the way the whole album works. Throughout, there are pieces of Costello’s musical past borrowed and re-contextualized until they are given new meaning.
Fischer’s orchestra appears on five of the album tracks, and they are one of the album’s many secret weapons. Lush and romantic on “Sugar,” they are foreboding and chaotic on the very next track.
"Refuse To Be Saved" is a re-imagining of the song "Invasion Hit Parade" from 1991’s Mighty Like A Rose. That song was written prior to the first Gulf War, but by the time it came out it felt like it was ripped from the headlines. A fairly deep cut within Costello’s oeuvre, Costello plucked it from obscurity as one of the songs he played in-studio for an iTunes Originals session in 2007, and it felt every bit as current then.
But if “Invasion Hit Parade” felt like it took place in some far off Third World country, “Refuse To Be Saved” seems like it is taking place in the here and now, the chaos having re-located to our own backyard.
“They’re mopping up all the stubborn ones who just refuse to be saved" has been replaced with a defiant refrain in the first person: "I REFUSE TO BE SAVED.”
Other songs revisit earlier Costello songs and juxtapose them in unexpected ways: "Wake Me Up" takes the chorus of "River In Reverse" and matches it with verses from "Bedlam" and snippets of "Broken Promise Land" in ways that seem both familiar and unrecognizable. "Stick Out Your Tongue" blends 1983’s "Pills & Soap" with 2010’s "National Ransom" and demonstrates how little has changed for the better in the interim.
"Tripwire" is an impossibly lovely song, with Costello’s tender, frail vocal matched by a return to the multi-tracked vocal harmonies that he has often eschewed over the past decade or so but which were a defining element of his “sound” for the first half of his recording career.
(Also in the vocal mix: Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Diane Birch, an artist whose work I was not previously familiar but who has a new album of her own out soon. Go to her website and listen to the title track of Speak A Little Louder and tell me you don’t want to buy that album, I dare you.)
It should be noted that the songs is also great without this sample, as Costello demonstrated at least week’s Apple iPhone 5 event:
"Tripwire" (solo, Apple iPhone 5 product launch)
"Come The Meantimes" is one of my absolute favorites on the album, in ways I find difficult to even articulate.
(The song uses a sample from "I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore" performed by The Glass House, a band put together by Holland-Dozier-Holland for their Invictus record label in 1969. I was also entirely unaware of this group, and have already ordered an import CD reissue of their two albums. Between this and Diane Birch, Wise Up Ghost has already expanded my personal record collection by several albums, happily.)
"(She Might Be A) Grenade" takes the semi-obscure "She’s Pulling Out The Pin" and makes it somehow even sadder and more despairing than the original, recognizably quoting the guitar riff from "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" but in such a quiet, haunted tone that it’s chilling.
Earlier this year, Costello appeared on the La Santa Cecelia album Treinta Dias, where he shared a vocal with lead singer La Marisoul on the song "Losing Game." She appears on Wise Up Ghost on the equally excellent song "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," once again trading verses with Costello. In a world were I could make objects magically exist, I would own a 7” bright red vinyl record with these two songs as double A-sides.
"Viceroy’s Row" is a slow, grooving track that takes full advantage of Costello’s falsetto as well as employing an arrangement featuring sousaphone, sax, flutes, trumpet and flugelhorn, which also appear on several other tracks, sometimes blending with Fischer’s orchestrations. This is a terrific “headphones” album, with a rich stew of sounds and a lot of fun and subtle touches throughout— excellent work by producer Mandel, who is also credited as co-songwriter with Questlove and Costello on all but one of the album’s twelve tracks.
"Wise Up Ghost" is extraordinary; Costello avoided having a title track on his albums for almost two decades, but once he started (1996’s All This Useless Beauty), it pretty much became standard practice for him. It always puts a little extra weight on the chosen track to have a layer of extra meaning that defines the album, and in this case it very much lives up to any such expectations.
Beginning with an audacious orchestral sample straight from the North song "Can You Be True?," I almost didn’t believe my ears when the song reached the one-minute-and-25-seconds mark. The track builds and builds and yet Costello remains close to the mic, calm and hushed while controlled chaos escalates behind him.
"If I Could Believe" is part of a rich tradition of closing songs on Costello albums, and a welcome addition to the fraternity of songs such as "Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4," "Favourite Hour," "Sleep Of The Just," and "I Want To Vanish."
It’s heartening to see Costello put in the same spotlight that he has spent his whole career shining on artists that he liked, and it bodes well for the next chapter of his career as a dynamic and relevant artist.
Whether he’s singing Springsteen and Guthrie songs on a hillside with Mumford & Sons or appearing on stage with the likes of Billie Joe Armstrong, Ben Gibbard and Fiona Apple, it feels like Costello has, in the past decade or so, reached the point where Costello’s influence on younger artists is going to lead to a string of new and interesting musical adventures.
Elvis Costello with Mumford & Sons: "Ghost Of Tom Joad / Do Re Mi"
Elvis Costello with Ben Gibbard: "I Will Follow You Into The Dark"
Fiona Apple with Elvis Costello & The Imposters: "I Want You"
Elvis Costello & The Imposters: "I Know" (Fiona Apple)
Elvis Costello & Billie Joe Armstrong: "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)"
Radiohead: "I’ll Wear It Proudly"
I’m hopeful that Costello & The Roots are closer to the beginning of a journey than the end of one. Despite drawing on a handful of words and sounds from Costello’s past, Wise Up Ghost doesn’t feel like a valedictory lap. Recent comments from Questlove validate my optimism.
"I know there’s gonna be another album, but can we do it the same? Can we do it like the boy’s club thing we were doing? It didn’t feel like we were making a record. We spent more time asking about what life was like in 1977 than I think we did recording. I can’t wait to do it again."
The world has yet to hear the very first studio recording by Costello & The Roots, a cover of the song “Someone Else’s Heart” for a forthcoming Squeeze tribute album. (Costello co-produced the original version with Roger Bechirian for the album East Side Story.)
It certainly seems as if the long-promised “Volume 2” of Kojak Variety could be a candidate for their continued collaboration, although the biggest hurdle to that could be narrowing the list of potential songs down to something smaller than a box set. I’ve long hoped that the continuation of Kojak Variety would occur in such a way to allow Costello to break free from the album format and experiment with releasing a new cover each week, whether it would be via a subscription service or some other form that hasn’t been invented yet. His interpretations of other people’s songs remain one of his less-heralded strengths, and even in periods of relative inactivity, he does tend to show up on tribute albums with regularity:
"License To Kill" (Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan)
"Quiet About It" (Quiet About It: A Tribute To Jesse Winchester)
The Roots would be the perfect partners for a project like this but, of course, it would also be fascinating to see where their next step would be in terms of writing more original songs together.
(And what about taking a crack at a few of the yet-to-be-recorded treasures from the Costello songbook, such as the epic song he wrote with Carole King, "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter"?)
Okay, I’ve got three brand new Elvis Costello & The Roots songs to absorb (the bonus tracks on the deluxe CD edition), so I’m going to end it there. I am still only in the very early stages of getting to know this album, but I’m sure it’s one that I’ll still be playing and enjoying many decades from now…
THE COMPLETE 40 DAYS OF ELVIS COSTELLO:
- DAY 1: RUSTY, FLIP CITY & THE “PRE-PROFESSIONAL” DAYS
- DAY 2: MY AIM IS TRUE
- DAY 3: THIS YEAR’S MODEL
- DAY 4: ARMED FORCES
- DAY 5: GET HAPPY!!
- DAY 6: TAKING LIBERTIES / TEN BLOODY MARYS & TEN HOW’S YOUR FATHERS
- DAY 7: TRUST
- DAY 8: ALMOST BLUE
- DAY 9: IbMePdErRoIoAmL / “Party Party”
- DAY 10: PUNCH THE CLOCK
- DAY 11: GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD
- DAY 12: KING OF AMERICA
- DAY 13: BLOOD & CHOCOLATE
- DAY 14: OUT OF OUR IDIOT
- DAY 15: THE McCARTNEY/MacMANUS DEMOS
- DAY 16: SPIKE
- DAY 17: GIRLS+£÷GIRLS=$&GIRLS
- DAY 18: KOJAK VARIETY
- DAY 19: MIGHTY LIKE A ROSE
- DAY 20: THE GEORGE JONES DEMOS
- DAY 21: THE JULIET LETTERS
- DAY 22: THE GWENDOLYN LETTERS
- DAY 23: BRUTAL YOUTH
- DAY 24: DEEP DEAD BLUE (Live At Meltdown)
- DAY 25: "My Dark Life"
- DAY 26: ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY
- DAY 27: COSTELLO & NIEVE / EXTREME HONEY
- DAY 28: PAINTED FROM MEMORY
- DAY 29: FOR THE STARS
- DAY 30: WHEN I WAS CRUEL
- DAY 31: NORTH
- DAY 32: THE DELIVERY MAN
- DAY 33: IL SOGNO
- DAY 34: PIANO JAZZ / MY FLAME BURNS BLUE
- DAY 35: THE RIVER IN REVERSE
- DAY 36: MOMOFUKU
- DAY 37: SPECTACLE - ELVIS COSTELLO WITH…
- DAY 38: SECRET, PROFANE & SUGARCANE
- DAY 39: NATIONAL RANSOM
- DAY 40: THE RETURN OF THE SPECTACULAR SPINNING SONGBOOK / POMP & POUT: THE UNIVERSAL YEARS / IN MOTION PICTURES / AND SO ON
- DAY 41: WISE UP GHOST AND OTHER SONGS