Elvis Costello and the Roots’ drummer/majordomo ?uestlove have a couple of big things in common: For one, they’re both the children of professional musicians. (?uest’s parents were in the Philly soul group Congress Alley; Costello’s father, Ross MacManus, sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra.) They’re also both gigantic record nerds, the kind of omnivorous music collectors who can go off on the minutiae of alternate pressings and mixes. ?uest has a legendarily mammoth record collection, from which he’s absorbed seemingly every groove anyone’s ever recorded. And Costello’s right up there with him in terms of obsessive music fandom: When he catalogued his 500 favorite albums for Vanity Fair in 2000, the list seemed like it could easily have gone on 10 times as long.
The new Costello/Roots collaboration Wise Up Ghost — mostly recorded in the Roots’ dressing room for their regular gig on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — sounds like the product of a couple of intense music nerds cheerfully impressing each other, and it’s drenched in musical history. Costello’s always been a habitual quoter of and alluder to other people’s songs: From his very earliest recordings onward, his discography is strewn with small and large echoes of his favorite records. (How many of the punks of 1977 who listened to his first album, My Aim Is True, noticed that “Blame It on Cain” borrowed the groove of Sam Cooke’s “That’s It – I Quit – I’m Movin’ On”?) The most extensive homage in his discography, 1980′s Get Happy!!, is pretty much a tribute to the sound of ’60s-era Stax Records — compare “Temptation” to Booker T. and the M.G.’s’ “Time is Tight.”
The curious thing about Wise Up Ghost is that the catalog Costello spends most of his time revisiting is his own. Several songs set nearly entire lyrics from old Costello compositions to new music: “Wake Me Up” is “Bedlam” from 2004′s The Delivery Man, and “(She Might Be a) Grenade” is the same record’s bonus track “She’s Pulling Out the Pin”; “Stick Out Your Tongue” is “Pills and Soap” from 1983′s Punch the Clock, with a verse from “Hurry Down Doomsday” stuck into the middle; “Refuse to be Saved” is “Invasion Hit Parade” from 1991′s Mighty Like a Rose (Ross MacManus, in fact, played trumpet on the original version).
The open question, though, is how many of the album’s meta-songs will stay in Costello’s repertoire. It’s been Elvis’s pattern for a few decades now that he treats his albums with his main rock band — the Attractions, originally, and more recently the Confederates — as his “real” repertoire, the source of most of the material he plays live. His work with other artists is more often collaborator-specific; it’ll be surprising if many of the songs from Wise Up Ghost appear in his stage show when he’s not playing with the Roots (although “Tripwire” turned up at a solo gig he played the week before its release). Still, it’s a remarkable record, the most surprising and challenging album Costello has made in many years. If he has to set up his throne in a hall of mirrors, this one would be a fine choice.