Elvis Costello and the Roots‘ drummer/majordomo Questlove have a couple of big things in common: For one, they’re both the children of professional musicians. (Quest’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. Quest 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). And the “Invasion Hit Parade” lyric was pretty allusive to begin with: “no pool, no pets, no cigarettes,” a half-quote from Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” gets rhymed with “just non-stop Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes,” a reference to the early disco act who recorded “Get Dancin’.” (Has Costello’s dismissive attitude toward the latter softened in the past 22 years? Who knows?)
Even in his new lyrics, Costello can’t stop alluding to the rattle bag of songs in his head. Wise Up Ghost‘s opening track “Walk Us Uptown” drops offhanded references to Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance On Me Baby” and the Mojos’ “Everything’s Alright,” and finally detours into a couple of lines from the 19th-century socialist anthem “The Red Flag”: “As cowards flee and traitors sneer/ Keep a red flag flying.” Of course, Costello can’t sing the word “coward” without bringing to mind the Coward Brothers, his collaboration with T-Bone Burnett — and when he mentions a white flag a few seconds later, it can’t help but recall his much-bootlegged early song “Wave a White Flag.” If you record as much as he has, everything’s an allusion to something.
In an interview with Electronic Musician, Costello noted that one unusual thing about Wise Up Ghost was that he didn’t play any tremolo guitar — the low-end leads that have been a hallmark of his performances since “Watching the Detectives.” But what’s that guitar sound that holds together “Sugar Won’t Work”? It might be Costello playing it, and it might be the Roots’ Captain Kirk Douglas — but the riff is very, very close to the one from “Watching the Detectives”… backwards. Likewise, the central musical motif of the album’s loveliest song, “Tripwire,” is another small Questlove nod to the Costello fanatics in the room: It’s lifted from the introduction to Elvis’s 1989 song “Satellite.”
At times, Wise Up Ghost matches Robert Christgau’s description of an early Magnetic Fields album — “more songs about songs and songs” — to the point where it’s sometimes not clear how much it has to do with the world beyond the record shelf. (The title of “Sugar Won’t Work” is surprising in that it’s a quote not from a song, but from the film version of “The Big Sleep.”)
The open question, though, is how many of its 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.