There are things in this world that, when you hear them side by side, make no sense. Like some conceptual syntax that simply doesn’t line up with the way the world should work. Popcorn sushi hors d’oeuvres, for example. Or an epic poem based on Die Hard. I encountered something recently though, that is making me wonder if maybe sushi and popcorn might not be the ideal combination for early-party finger food, or if perhaps “Yippy kay yay” couldn’t be artfully wedged into iambic pentameter. That thing is Elvis Costello and The Roots.
Maybe I’m just out of the loop on this, but to my mind, this collaboration just doesn’t seem logical. I’m not all that familiar with Costello’s work, but what I do know of it suggests an affinity for radio-friendly power pop from the seventies. Costello is a fifty-nine year old British singer-songwriter known for such classics as “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding” and “Alison” while The Roots are an eclectic mixture of hip-hop and jazz coming out of Philadelphia (now serving as Jimmy Fallon’s house band onLate Night). I’ve dabbled occasionally in The Roots, having picked up their last collaboration Wake Up! (with John Legend) and getting Undun from a friend of mine, but I don’t have a deep knowledge of their work. So here are two artists, neither of whom I know all that much about, from two wildly different worlds and even generations of music, making an album together. Like I said, sushi and popcorn, right?
Well imagine my surprise then, when I get my hands on the album and it actually makes a lot of sense. The album’s opener, “Walk Us Uptown,” has Costello crooning, managing to sound borderline punk, over a beat that could really only ever be described as “funky fresh,” and it sounds damned good. “Refused to Be Saved” just oozes cool as wah-heavy guitars give way to a surprisingly smooth stream of consciousness cataloging urban life and its hang-ups. The title track, “Wise Up Ghost,” really showcases the strength of a collaboration like this, crossing the atmospheric, groove heavy hip-hop of The Roots with Costello’s penchant for a strong hook and lyrical wordplay. If you’re looking for more of what I would expect from Costello, check out “If I Could Believe.” It’s a pretty standard pop ballad, but seems very out of place following “Wise Up,” and stands out glaringly within the overall sound of the album. But hey, who am I to judge?
When I first saw the names Elvis Costello and The Roots together, my first reaction was a mixture of confusion, amusement, and curiosity. That heady mix has stuck with me throughout the album, with shifting levels of each depending on the track, but always coming from that same mixture of the unexpected, the entertaining, and the strange that seems to define the overlap of these two artists. This isn’t a collaboration that you would expect, but it’s one you should probably check out. I’m definitely glad I did.
Here’s the full album on youtube, if you want to take a listen: