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Welcome back to The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
The week’s pick: “Wise Up Ghost,” from Wise Up Ghost (2013)
Gary Stewart: “Wise Up Ghost,” the title cut from the album Costello made last year in collaboration with The Roots, is nothing less than a wake-up call—a cry from the present to act on the conscience of the past. Collective memory fighting selective memory takes a kick in the groin when a tap on he shoulder won’t cut it anymore in the face of unacceptable current events.
The song isn’t overtly literal or didactically political, but ignore the meaning of a line like “old woman living in a cardboard shoe/lost so many souls she don’t know what to do/so say your prayers ’cause down the stairs it’s 1932” at your own risk. The track feels like a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of the counterculture baby boomer and punk-era generations that let things fall apart on their watch. But none of that would matter if the music, the sound, and everything else about this track didn’t feel like it was trying to shake the apathy right out of you by any means necessary. It starts out ominous before building into a cacophony that encompasses the best of modern indie rock (I could see Phosphorescent covering this in some parallel universe), modern hip-hop, and more than a small nod to the psychedelic soul of Sly Stone, Norman Whitfield-era Temptations, and everything else that matters.
Even if you haven’t already been persuaded by our Elvis Costello Song of the Week feature, I’m begging you to give this track and the Wise Up Ghost album some attention. “I don’t need to hear another album from ______” is all too often the reaction to veteran artists who still do good work in a “next big thing” world—even when they do something so groundbreaking, it would have been showered with superlatives had it come from a new artist. Somehow many of the publications that fawn over and give overinflated grades to their old favorites missed the boat on this one. But that’s OK, because this isn’t a solid work by veteran artist. It’s something else—new, passionate, relevant, and urgent.
David Gorman: Man, I agree with you on every point but one: This absolutely is the work of a veteran artist and couldn’t have possibly come from someone new. The spark of this whole collaboration between Costello and ?uestlove isn’t what The Roots bring as a backing band (though…damn…that works, too), but how they pushed Elvis to embrace hip-hop — thankfully not by testing MC Manus’ ability to flow, but by setting him free to sample. And while a new artist would be sampling to other musicians’ lyrics and melodies, Costello had 35 years of his own to plunder. Throughout the album, he inverts, quotes, remakes and rethinks his own work to create something bracing and new. (Too) many veteran artists revisit their glory days by releasing albums of their hits rearranged, unplugged or newly orchestrated, but this is the work of an artist refusing the very idea of a “career arc,” revisiting his work without a whiff of nostalgia and in a way that asks nothing of listeners unaware of his history.
This song is where the entire concept of the album comes together most explosively and the self-sampling gives the biggest thrills for Costellophiles. “She’s pulling out the pin…” was the title of a twisted country shuffle he cut in Mississippi before it became the warning cry in “Wise Up Ghost.” The strings and piano that started life as the intro to one of Costello’s most romantic, mannered ballads, “Can You Be True?” are sampled, looped, and turned into the sound of impending, inescapable doom. Even the rhythm of Elvis’ vocal can be traced directly back to “Pills & Soap,” which was arguably his first toe in hip-hop’s waters. Let The Roots loose over it all and the whole track becomes downright frightening. Kirk Douglas rips, pulls and twists blood out of his guitar while ?uestlove beats the life out of his drum kit with the same fury that he used to set fire to D’Angelo’s “1000 Deaths.”
I get that this doesn’t sound in any way like the work of veteran, but it could have only been the result of a veteran artist bold enough to blow up his own legacy, put the pieces in the hands of hip-hop’s most vital musicians, and put the results to lyrics that seethe with the weight of history.
Good lord, how many of Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week have there been already? The answer is right here in this playlist: