'Wise Up Ghost'
Elvis Costello and the Roots
3 stars (out of 4)
Serial collaborators Elvis Costello and the Roots join forces on "Wise Up Ghost" (Blue Note), an album that plays it scrappy and loose – as if neither had anything to lose. It's also a pointed and chilling state-of-the-world album. In a world in which government surveillance, chemical weapons and citizen revolts are ascendant, "Wise Up Ghost" provides an appropriately nerve-racking soundtrack with a desperate message: Indifference is death.
The unlikely collaboration was forged by Costello's frequent appearances on the "Late Show with Jimmy Fallon," where the Roots are the house band. Costello, Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Roots producer Steven Mandel do most of the heavy lifting; they write and produce the entire album. They've made what sounds like a noir song cycle that borrows from hip-hop, neo-soul and dark-night-of-the-soul singer-songwriter concept albums without fully embracing any of those genres. The stylistic ambiguity is precisely the point – it gives the project an instability rare for veteran artists with distinctive voices to project and loyal fans to satisfy.
Costello can come off as a dilettante in some of his genre-bending projects, but with Questlove he revels in sparse, edgy shadowplay and his understatement as a vocalist is matched by the musicianship. A masterful drummer, Questlove dials everything back and leaves plenty of space. The songs are on constant edge, a state of tension without release, as if anticipating a detonation that never arrives but is always a threat.
"She's pulling out the pin," Costello sings, the movie-script-worthy opening line for "(She Might Be A) Grenade." Strings bend and recede around him, keyboards stab and Questlove navigates, as the singer turns a femme fatale into a terrorist. In an album full of paranoid narrators, trouble drifts like nerve gas. "Don't open the door cause they're coming/Don't open the door because they're here" becomes the fearful mantra on the deceptive lullaby "Tripwire," with its chiming bells and lulling vocals.
The flair for disorientation flags in the second half. Tempos drag in the Latin-flavored "Cinco Minutos Con Vos" and the static "Viceroy's Row," and the title track is a mood piece that never climbs out of neutral. But even these misfires feel like experiments that fell short, while the rest of "Wise Up Ghost" revels in its uneasiness.