The past hand-jives its way into the present in Elvis Costello & The Roots’ new album Wise Up the Ghost. Using a fusion of 1950s rockabilly and contemporary electronic, Costello fortifies his reputation as a musical chameleon — though one that lacks direction.
With an illustrious 30-plus year career under his belt, Costello has come a long way from his 1977 debut that iconized him as “that guy that looks like Buddy Holly”. After blending, redefining and otherwise rebelling against the confines of genre for so long, the only question that remains is: is there anywhere left for Costello to go?
What initially catches the eye about the album is not the sound, but the cover — a play on Allen Ginsberg’s classic poetry volume Howl. But if this is an attempt to declare the album as being as radical and ground-breaking as Ginsberg’s poetry, Costello may need to cash in a reality check.
Opening on an upbeat yet cacophonic note, with the song “Walk Us Uptown,” Costello warbles alongside a jumble of sounds including what appears to be the adjustment of volume on a MacBook. The entire album continues on this confused, time-warped note that is reminiscent of the infamous Jay Z/Gatsby scandal earlier this year.
The enjoyment of such contrasting sounds in the same song is certainly an acquired taste, much like boxed wine or Marquis Hall coffee. By attempting to bring the hazy, bluesy glamour of the past into a fast-paced and unforgiving present, Costello creates an overall discordant sound that is saved by a mere handful of standout tracks. The beauty of Costello’s music lies primarily in his lyrics, which do not take center stage or even stage right in Wise Up the Ghost.
The entire album exists as a poor caricature of what could have been. It appears Elvis Costello’s musical prowess came with an expiry date. Wise Up the Ghost may live on as ambient music played dimly in the background at coffee shops and bookstores, but has fallen flat in its attempt to live on in the hearts of listeners.
Perhaps it’s time for Elvis Costello to lay his career to a much overdue rest.
Photo: Heineken Jazzaldia