Enough with Velvet Elvis. This year’s model of Elvis Costello features a collaboration with the Roots that inspires his angriest singing and best album in many years.
“Wise Up Ghost” (Blue Note) covers topical turf as Costello rails about the tense and troubled times. The title cut calls for a revolution, “Come the MEANTIMES” offers dark ruminations on faith and the flag, and “TRIPWIRE” considers the combustible combination of fear, hatred and armies.
Costello also lets loose on love gone wrong, as he has done on many of his best songs. “She’s pulling out the pin … that lets her hair fall down,” he sings on “(She Might Be a) GRENADE.”
Writing with Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and producer Steven Mandel, Costello dials back his melodic ambitions, and for a change he sings songs that don’t exceed his range. Built more on riffs than hooks, the music has the verve of new wave, the directness of punk and the groove of 1970s R&B, with Questlove’s snare and Costello samples among the hip-hop flavorings.
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The hybrid gets good mileage, and Costello’s venomous vocals energize much of the set. But on the closing piano ballad, “If I Could BELIEVE,” he oversings and reverts to his worst role – EC, square.