"Why is your face drawn on so glum, old chum?" So ponders Elvis Costello near the end of his new, noir-like summit with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost.
Given the groove-centric but decidedly downcast tone of the record, all kinds of answers could be devised for such a query. The song from which it comes, The Puppet Has Cut His Strings (one of the three tunes tacked onto the record's deluxe edition), speaks of askew and largely unwelcome liberation — meaning death, perhaps. It could also be a song of departure or abandonment ("the crowd went home and left you for dead, my old woodenhead").
Whether he is puppet or puppeteer, Costello is singing about solitude — the kind of tough-love solitude that forges strength. That's quite a curious sentiment for a record so musically juiced by collaboration.
It's easy when listening to Wise Up Ghost to savor an abundance of largely understated grooves peppered by The Roots' funereal R&B and jazz touches. They abound in arrangements that lovingly encourage subtle horn arrangements while sampling bits of previous Costello songs.
One of the record's most fascinating mash-ups, Stick Out Your Tongue, is a rewrite of 1983's deliciously creepy Pills and Soap. Here, a dirge-like recitation of lyrics mingle with Roots impresario ?uestlove's loop-like keyboard-and-drum groove before a splash by horns and mantra-like background vocals complete the song's fashionable rebirth.
Wise Up Ghost is a record that regularly keeps the listener guessing. Two of its opening tunes (Sugar Won't Work and Refuse to Be Saved) have sentiments that seem seething. That might seem like a welcome mood swing from the warmer cast of recent Costello records. But then we hit Tripwire. A bona fide Costello classic sung like an R&B lullaby, it seeks and then forsakes forgiveness with a trigger finger on the polarity that has become frighteningly topical in almost any culture ("Torn from the pages of history, repeated again and again and again. You're either for us or against us. That's how the hatred begins.")
There are echoes here of several previous Roots albums. But given the band's vast (yet organic) stylistic reach, Wise Up Ghost becomes something of a playground — from the way organ echoes about the retro-soul bounce of the truly frightening Walk Us Uptown to the more elemental drive behind the dangerously fenced-in funk of (She Might Be a) Grenade.
Ultimately, though, Costello rules the Roots' roost on Wise Up Ghost like a modern-day Rod Serling. He is half host, half henchman on one of the year's most satisfying but unsettling groove adventures.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.