Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson moves ever more firmly toward the Jack White business model, setting himself up like guitar heroes of the ’60s and ’70s who trotted out, and reinvigorated, aging luminaries. Such is the case on Wise Up Ghost, on which the Roots play Elvis Costello’s backing band. The partnership underpins the most overtly cool iteration of Costello’s disaffected delivery in years, if not decades. It’s also a far more collaborative effort than some have claimed (former Slant contributor John Lingan, for example, thinks that the album “feels too much like Elvis/Questlove instead of Elvis/Roots”). But ever since 2002’s Phrenology, the Roots have in fact been a terrific guitar band, thanks to axe-man Captain Kirk’s underappreciated versatility as accompanist and soloist. The result is an album that pops with attitude, relaxed but never lazy, a groove-driven album structured around Quest’s minimalist drum attack, Kirk’s old-school rhythm n’ blues licks and wahs, some Curtis Mayfield-style string arrangements, and a lead singer whose voice sounds oddly youthful, as though channeled from his Imposters days.
Costello hits most of his conventional targets, but the lyrics are more disciplined, more direct, and less wordy than his more self-directed latter-day projects. On “Refuse to Be Saved,” he waxes paranoid by way of bibilical reference (“I know my neighbor/’Cause he’s always the one that turns me in”); he both embraces and rejects the role of scenester, at once pitiful and proud when he sighs “I’m only talking to myself” on “Come the Meantimes”; and he offers an awestruck appraisal of a violent, ballsy femme fatale on “(She Might Be A) Grenade” over a hypnotic and lush arrangement led by organ, strings, and harp. To use David Gilmour’s phrase, it’s a very “watery” orchestration, in all the right ways. Costello’s visually rich, near-cinematic lyrical tendencies appear to best effect on “Stick Out Your Tongue,” in which he imagines a camera panning across a woman’s face (you’ve got to hear it to picture it).
A problem that’s nipped at the Roots since well before Fallon, Occupy Wall Street, and Mo’ Meta Blues is Questlove’s emergence as the band’s public face. It’s hard not to consider him the star of Wise Up Ghost, even though, naturally, he never utters a word. Quest’s grounding in hard-groove R&B and self-schooling in various sections of the popular songbook, black and white, is what makes these infectious arrangements possible. Credited as producer alongside longtime Roots engineer Steven Mendel and Costello, the drummer’s fingerprints appear on every measure of the album, his Prince obsession exuberant but controlled on the wah guitar-driven tracks; the early-’70s Bill Withers Band-esque keys on “Wake Wake Me Up” are built like a drumbeat and feel very much a product of Quest’s singular musical brain. Likewise, Quest’s avowed awe of David Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors is the engine behind “Viceroy’s Row,” another act of hypnotism, all melodies and oblique harmonies, wherein Quest induces Costello to sing like Longstreth over something close to the Projectors’ famous hocketing.
But Questlove’s legion ability to ground moody or occasionally rudderless musicians isn’t the primary appeal of Wise Up Ghost. First, Quest didn’t write the horn charts, and the baritone saxophone—especially central to the leagues-deep groove of “Walk Us Uptown,” which comes on like Gorillaz—is but one of many elements that Mandel and Costello have layered very stylishly over Quest’s micromanagement of the rhythm section. With the ’70s-throwback foundation, the hip-hop inflections, the looped keyboards reminiscent of early-’90s revivalists such as Melanie L. (see her cover of Cameo’s “Word Up”), the album succeeds on its own meta-retro feel. Costello channels his own Aim Is True-era self while spitting amelodic lyrics without ever sounding like a failed white rapper. Better yet, with all that quasi-rapping, Costello’s moments of inspired melody land all the harder, and the Roots know when to pull back and let the Imposter give vent to his sighs, his sneers, and eventually—on the closing track—an awfully sincere, piano-led crisis of faith.