Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Elvis Costello and The Roots - Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (2013)

I just listened to tracks from the highly anticipated Elvis Costello and The Roots album, Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, and they are about what I expected: totally tuneless dirges with vocals that try one's patience. If Costello writes insightful lyrics they've yet to penetrate my soul because the sounds the veteran rocker produces never allow me to get that far.

There are bad singers, like Bob Dylan, who I have no problem listening to because they write melodies with interesting arrangements. Others, such as Bruce Springsteen and Larry Kirwan of Black 47, can't sing either but their respective bands are so musical I actually care what their songs have to say. Unfortunately, not even Questlove's highly versatile outfit can save this new release.

I'll admit to a few exceptions. Costello's cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny about Peace, Love, and Understanding" is a fine, rocking track that manages to hide his vocal liabilities. "Alison" takes on a whole new dimension when covered by someone like Linda Ronstadt despite the nasty things the British star said about her version. I also like "Watching the Detectives," but not much else.

David Lee Roth once said that the reason most music critics like Elvis Costello and hate Van Halen is because most critics look like Elvis Costello. There could be some truth in Roth's words because it certainly can't be the music the highly prolific performer makes.

What is it about this guy that people love? Is Costello just a critic's darling? Do ordinary music listeners like him? Help me out here and tell me if I'm wrong.


  1. Charlie,

    Youre missing the entire point -- it's that Costello is offering you a variety of sounds to choose from -- believe me there is a bunch of recent stuff I either think he's overstretched on, or that just falls flat on.. But he keeps trying to pry my head open with new ideas, new sounds... Same with artists like Joe Jackson. Whether you like the music or not these guys are both artists in the most real sense. They explore. They invite us to come with them. Of course we can dismiss it -- but in EC's case there will be a new album out every 1-2 years that tries again... and again.. and again. Some will be of the "old school" rocker variety - some bluegrass, chamber music, classical, country, blues, jazz.. Elvis takes chances. Never plays it safe. And the reason for that is simple. He's a music fan. Pure and simple. Each genre he tackles is a labor of love. Each release is a new attempt to bring to his audience a new serving of something we might not have heard before.

    Look, I may not like the taste sometimes. But I love the "cook".

    And let's face it - isn't this really what critics like you fear most.. music that is beyond characterization.


  2. You're taste in music is highly questionable. Also, there's no use bringing Van Halen into this. That quote was made over twenty years ago and no longer holds any water here.

  3. "There could be some truth in Roth's words because it certainly can't be the music the highly prolific performer makes.

    What is it about this guy that people love? Is Costello just a critic's darling? Do ordinary music listeners like him? Help me out here and tell me if I'm wrong."

    Well, you're not "wrong" overall-- you just don't like him, and that's fair enough. For me, I'd second the notion of him as both a music fan/ambassador and someone who is constantly taking creative risks that frequently pay off (and occasionally don't.)

    As far as "ordinary music listeners", well, he's never been a huge commercial success, but he's reasonably popular and well-regarded by other musicians and by a certain stripe of music fan. His singing voice is an acquired taste, but I'd argue that Costello has Dylan beat when it comes to melodies and interesting arrangements. (Just listen to an album like Imperial Bedroom, for instance, or All This Useless Beauty.)

    And with your claim that "it certainly can't be the music" well, in that you ARE wrong. The people who DO like him generally DO like his music. He's written like 500+ songs and some of them are probably things you think are tuneless dirges. But I'd say there are also a lot of highly tuneful songs of all different kinds.

    I'm not suggesting that you go digging deep-- you clearly don't like what you've heard, and there's probably little point in wasting a lot of your time exploring an artist you dislike. But if you can't hear what's good on albums like Get Happy or King Of America or Brutal Youth or National Ransom-- if ALL those albums (which are quite different from one another-- fail to appeal to you in any way, then it's just that you don't like him and that's that.

  4. Allow me to rise to your defense, at least a little bit. I am not a fan either. Costello's first couple of records struck me as as relentlessly unpleasant listening, and as a result I had no interest in any of the other ones. In the intervening years, if I happened to hear something of his on the radio, more often than not it passed me by unnoticed.

    I will say, however, that lots of people I respect really like the guy, and that's fine. As for me, I just don't care about him.

    One other thing: those who defend Costello, and at the same time insult the writer with whose opinion they disagree, but who do it anonymously, are gutless and should be ashamed of themselves.

    If you believe it, put your name to it. Or initials and a link, at least.

  5. I don't think I've ever read a review I've more vehemently disagreed with. Costello is a massive talent and this latest release is sensational. Although, I do wear thick-rimmed glasses, so that's probably clouding my judgment.