Few musical pleasures are as satisfying as an eloquent artist with a sharpened pen and bitter tongue delivering perfectly pitched poison -- especially if the songwriter name-checks Disco-Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes and cites soldiers “playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned.” It doesn’t hurt if the band propelling these darts is the Roots.
Bitterness and Elvis Costello, how sweet the sound. On “Wise Up Ghost,” the musician’s powerful new collaboration with the hip-hop group (and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” backing band), the artist offers a dozen songs that tackle war, peace, dishonor, disappointment and strife. A record that pops with urgency, it’s a journey into the world of big-picture alienation, one that highlights the little lives trying to survive amid the chaos.
Costello has long been an expert at searing singalong indictments, but he’s seldom been prone to violence. From the first to the last, though, Costello delivers songs that suggest a writer with damage on his mind. He plants a grenade in the hand of a bride in “(She Might Be a) Grenade.” In “Cinco Minutos Con Vos,” he and guest vocalist La Mirasoul of La Santa Cecilia sing of sirens that wail and bullets that hail, of drones and “triangle tears.” “Viceroy’s Row” describes a man who “made a fortune out of barbed wire / In the last days of the empire.”
The structure from which Costello hurls his indictments is equally fortified. Filled with melodic and lyrical quotes from other Costello songs, the artist and band plant enough Easter eggs to excite the most avid fan. “Stick Out Your Tongue” is kin to his gem “Pills & Soap.” “Tripwire” sees the band harnessing the melody from Costello’s “Satellite” in service of a new work about war: “Torn from the pages of history / Repeated again and again and again / You’re either for or against us / And that is how the hatred begins.” The heavy snare sound that kicks off “Walk Us Uptown” pops throughout the album; washes of strings and horns dot songs with Stax-like urgency.
“Gather some stones and make them atone,” sings Costello on “Come the Meantimes,” a line that captures the essence of “Wise Up Ghost.” A heavy work both thematically and musically, it shows one of the great songwriters of the last three-plus decades at yet another artistic peak. If you’ve ever fallen in love with a Costello record, be prepared for a new obsession.