Elvis Costello compares creating Wise Up Ghost, his new album with the Roots, to playing the children’s game “heads, bodies, and tails”. In that activity, one person draws the head of a beast and then folds over the paper and hands it to the next person, who draws the body and folds over the paper and then hands it to someone else to sketch the tail.
“That’s sort of the way we did this record,” Costello says. “We didn’t communicate a lot in words. It was just obvious from the way the songs were developing. Quite literally, one thing led to another. I couldn’t have imagined the record that we ended up with in its entirety.”
The record that the British singer-songwriter and the hip-hop collective “ended up with” is a heady, swampy brew of funky, groove-filled—and often slightly sinister-sounding—melodies surrounded by Costello’s frequently biting lyrics. The two seemingly disparate acts meet in the middle for a compelling musical journey that brings in elements of such soul icons as Curtis Mayfield and the Family Stone.
Costello’s three appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the talk show for which the Roots are the house band, laid the groundwork for the partnership. As the bespectacled Costello grew increasingly impressed with the Roots’ arrangements of his songs, he and Roots bandleader Ahmir Thompson (a.k.a. Questlove) began quietly talking about recording together.
During their discussions, Questlove whispered the name of a past musical collaboration in Costello’s ear as a code word for the eclectic hybrid they could create. Costello and Questlove have vowed to never reveal their secret, in part for fear of drawing comparison. “It was just a clue as a way of thinking what [our recording] might be,” Costello says. “It was a good clue because here we are—we’ve made it.”
As they began working up material, marrying Costello’s lyrics and melodies with the Roots’ beats, grooves, and loops, they also kept their work secret, stealing away to record in the Roots’ tiny New York studio or meeting up with Costello on the road. “We didn’t tell anyone we were doing it,” Costello says—because they weren’t sure exactly what it was they were doing.
They abandoned the initial idea to revisit existing Costello tunes, but the notion of re-examining older material remained; Wise Up Ghost lifts a number of Costello’s past lyrics and melodies as the building blocks for four of the songs, while they created the remaining eight from the ground up. The gleefully unrepentant “Refuse to Be Saved” features lyrics from 1991’s “Invasion Hit Parade”, while the swaying, gentle “Tripwire” comes from a sample of 1989’s “Satellite.”
The post-punker found the exercise tremendously freeing. “It was very liberating to take [1983’s] ‘Pills and Soap’, which was a very austere record originally, and not try to match that tension so much as feel the groove that Ahmir was implying on [‘Stick Out Your Tongue’] and develop the arrangement so that it was a sexier kind of music—yet we’re still singing about these lies that we accept.”
Costello bristles at the notion that he relied on past material because he has run out of things to say. “I’m taking the ideas that I’ve said before and putting them together to reach a new conclusion, and that new conclusion has been proposed by the music.”
Costello hints that there may be future collaborations with the Roots coming, even though their jammed schedules leave time for only a handful of joint appearances. In the meantime, Costello knows that every new project, whether it’s a solo album or one of his many genre-stretching partnerships with Allen Toussaint, the Brodsky Quartet, or the Roots, is a chance to win over new fans. “Some people say there’s been nothing worth having after those first two records or five records or whatever it is,” he says. “There are other people who walk in the door on the [latest] record and go, ‘Get this! This is what I’ve always wanted.’”
Photo by Danny Clinch.