Early in his recent memoir, Mo Metta Blues, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson admits to writing reviews of his own albums as a way of pre-screening or even projecting what he’s about to offer the world.
“[I] lay out the page just like it’s a Rolling Stone page from when I was ten or eleven,” he writes. “It’s the only way I really know how to imagine what I think the record is. And as it turns out, most of the time the record ends up pretty close to what I say it is in the review.” This is the context in which Thompson thinks about his music; even when manipulating the dance floor, he’s thoughtful. His posturing is inward and intellectual in lieu of stripped away arrogance and he’s infectiously interested. Of course, Questlove alone isn’t The Roots, but particularly when collaborating with an outside artist for a one-off album and without Black Thought directly attached, Ahmir Thompson is an obvious conductor.
Wise Up Ghost was sparked by Costello’s numerous appearances beginning last year on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” where The Roots are the house band. On “Late Night,” the band offers up a punchy character of its own (they slyly played “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” by Fishbone for Michelle Bachmann’s entrance when she appeared on the show during her 2012 campaign for the Republican primary) as much as it is acts as a celebrity musical guest unto itself.
Still, it’s a testament to The Roots’ flexibility and positioning that a full-length collaboration with an English New Wave singer/songwriter can remain understated and natural. The album begins with the lead single “Walk Us Uptown” and what sounds like a melodic ink jet printer in action. The song, like much of the rest of the album, is delightfully deconstructable; the Reggae-tinged guitar strokes and an aggressive walking bassline are grounded by Questlove’s crispy beat. The record is consistently peppered with fleeting sounds entering and promptly exiting that beg for further consideration; on “Walk Us Uptown,” one of the most gratifying guitar riffs is delicate and off-centered, a lead-worthy part in the margins. The single is also as good an example of Costello’s lyricism as the album provides. “Will you walk us uptown / While our tears run in torrents / To suffer in silence or pray for some solace / Will you wash away our sins / In the cross-fire and cross-currents / As you uncross your fingers / And take out some insurance.”
“Sugar Won’t Work,” is the first real glimpse of the album’s string arrangements, as the track opens with a floating and melancholy set of orchestration. The strings are broken up by Questlove’s simple beat and a groovy, almost Garage Rock, raw guitar riff. The orchestration is a product of arranger Brent Fischer, who has also been tasked with arranging strings on D’Angelo’s yet-to-be-released third studio album. Fischer is the son of the notorious arranger Clare Fischer, who worked extensively with Prince as well as Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney and Cal Tjader. The strings on Wise Up Ghost are a worthy character of their own, and on “Sugar Won’t Work” in particular, they add drama to the refrain without feeling cheesy—an effect prototyped by Soul and Funk friendly arrangers like Johnny Pate of Curtis Mayfield association (and Superfly fame) and Gene Page of Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man.
Later, “Tripwire” is the first song to break the groove with its slow-paced lullaby verses and a chorus like a 1950’s Doo Wop infused Rock number (though the sultry horns are a more recent inflection). It is also the first song to centralize the vulnerability, rawness and general awkwardness in Costello’s voice and one of the better examples of the album’s spacing, as he sounds like he’s staged in front, an exposed front-man with sparse instrumentation literally right behind him. While Hip Hop fans might immediately shun a Roots album sans Black Thought, Costello’s lyrics are a signature in the poetic:
“Just because you don’t speak the language doesn’t mean that you can’t understand / The twist in the script of an insult / Scrawled on the back of your hand / Torn from the pages of scripture / Sprayed on a wall in the frays of a flag / Kisses forbidden on lips / And all of your fine clothes worn into rags.”
With “Tripwire” as a premature middle ground, the second half of the album is mostly groove-laden. Noticeably, “Stick Out Your Tongue” finds Costello revisiting lyrics from his own oddball 1983 solo record “Pills And Soap,” a track originally inspired by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s socially charged “The Message.” On the original, Costello sings atop a simple and definitively 1980’s drum machine loop and keyboard riff while “Stick Out Your Tongue” bubbles with more density and a restrained urgency as the instrumentation. Later Costello’s singing pans from one channel to the other (a short break about two minutes in even seems to reference the electro stylings of the original’s inspiration). The song is a veiled political criticism analogizing animal abuse and testing (hence the title) that holds as much weight in 21st century America as it did 30 years ago directed at Margaret Thatcher’s conservatism.
“Come The Meantimes” may be the album’s obvious highlight with its beat built from a knocking snare (Questlove is endlessly tapping the hi-hat with sixteenth notes as well), an almost wailing background noise, ringing bells and a staccato plucked string riff. With its immediate momentum it is the kind of song that’s hard to imagine ending; instead of looping back on itself, and even when all but the drums and a distorted guitar abruptly cut out, it feels like the band is incessantly lurching forward. It is also one of Costello’s most cynically terse lyrical compositions when he sings, “Will you still be cursing me / On my anniversary?” and what seems like an ongoing Jesus referencing refrain: “He came back, (right back) / And nobody blinked / He came back (right back) / At least I think that he did / He came back (right back) / Then he ran and he hid / And he muttered and moaned / And said ‘Let’s go get stoned.’”
While they largely reside in separate spaces, Questlove and Costello are perfect counterparts in their musical zaniness. Still, instead of an album that requires a sit down they’ve struck the careful balance of both immediately gratifying and study worthy. The addition of longtime Roots engineer and general collaborator Steve Mandel (who also worked on D’Angelo’s Voodoo) and arranger Brent Fischer round out the mix, and it’s hard to imagine the Blue Note released record without either of them attached. As a result, Wise Up Ghost feels like a triumph both in its setup and execution. It is not a Hip Hop record with Costello as a visitor nor a project that finds The Roots stretching; instead, it’s an exercise in adaptability. Its legacy will be less a product of what section it finds itself in a record store than it is a reflection of the commonly arrived upon realization that there are only two types of music in the world, good and bad. Take it or leave it, Wise Up Ghost is great.