When I heard that Elvis Costello and The Roots, two of my favorite artists, were collaborating for a full album, I almost thought it was a hoax. I knew that Elvis had been a guest with the band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon before, but the realistic probability of this album ever being made was almost laughably low. I’m so glad they defied such odds.
When it comes to new albums, I can be a tough customer. I will hear the first few songs on the latest release from a band I love and dismiss it as their same old shit, but this is well beyond the same old shit. On Wise Up Ghost, Elvis Costello and The Roots created the perfect balance of songwriting, soul, and hip hop and gave it a bone-chilling message that calls out everyone from American politicians and oil execs to would-be revolutionaries and the average music nerd downloading torrents.
Wise Up Ghost kicks off with “Walk Us Uptown,” which was released a few months before the album’s September 17th debut and sets the tone for the album with a dirty and dry key line that is as off-putting as it is inspiring. The song draws the listener in and exhibits a hint of deviousness that only increases your curiosity for what comes next.
Then the beat drops. As is the case with the rest of the album, ?uestlove and The Roots put their signature groove and soul down here to support Costello’s unique vocals. As with many of Elvis’ lyrics, it is hard to interpret exactly what he is saying. To me, though, “Walk Us Uptown” is a satirical play on our politicians and higher-ups leading the general population down a road of false liberty as they’ve done throughout history.
This song features one of my favorite lyrics on Wise Up Ghost. When Elvis says, “Keep a red flag flying, keep a blue flag as well, and a white flag in case it all goes to hell,” I believe he is saying that behind the stubborn and aggressive nature of our bipartisan government lies cowardice and failure.
This theme of “us against them” and a proposed revolution is very prevalent on this record. With songs like “Refuse To Be Saved” and the head-bobbingest track on the album, “Viceroy’s Row,” the message is clearly that history has gone in the favor of those with money and power. While these are incredibly successful musicians who aren’t strapped for cash, given their position and strong presence in the current musical limelight, I genuinely appreciate their speaking up for those lower on the totem pole with such truth and eloquence.
Wise Up Ghost includes several references to a coming wartime and revolution. The phrase “she’s pulling out the pin” is used on a few songs, suggesting something big ahead in our future, with the pulled pin of a grenade being the first action that is taken in a revolution that is more than a social fad, but something genuine that affects an entire culture. This album calls for that change.
The true soul and artistic integrity found on this album are unmatched, and releasing the album on Blue Note Records (among names like Coletrane, Hancock, and Shorter) didn’t hurt its legitimacy. The musicianship and message call back to albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, where the instrumentation is stunning and the message is more than powerful: it is socially and politically important.
If you are a fan of Elvis Costello, The Roots, soul, hip hop, politics, or music with meaning, I can’t recommend this album enough. It really struck a chord with me from the moment I heard it. I didn’t think I could respect these artists more than I already did, but Wise Up Ghost exceeds the high expectations I had for this collaboration.