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Elvis Costello and the Roots pull apart, reshape the past

'Wise Up Ghost' collaboration, birthed by 'Jimmy Fallon' performances, recontextualizes Costello lyrics and melodies

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Elvis Costello is no stranger to collaborations, whether it be with Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, or the Brodsky Quartet, but with hip-hop collective The Roots, he's found a surprisingly simpatico partnership that bristles and delights on his latst album "Wise Up Ghost."

Over three separate performances on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," Costello felt a kinship growing with house band,The Roots, and their leader, Ahmir (?uestlove) Thompson. They began working on songs together, including taking key lyrics and melodies from some of Costello's past songs and refashioning them on four of the 12 tracks. Though filled with barbed observations, the songs are funky and groove-filled, as if the late Curtis Mayfield were guiding the effort.

Costello talked to MSN Music about how the album came together and the birthing process, as well as hinted as some future collaborations still to come, and why he still loves playing live.

MSN Music: How important was it to you and The Roots to create something that neither one of you could have created separately?

Costello: I don't think that we thought about what it was we were doing in terms of imagining the whole, it just began. We didn't have any other theoretical conversation. We didn't tell anyone we were doing it. Quite literally one thing led to another, other than to say that the initial suggestion was that we revisit some songs from my catalog. My response to that was yes, but take them apart and put them back together so they can tell different stories. We did that for a few songs and then I guess from that we started to create some songs entirely.

MSN Music: Stream Elvis Costello & The Roots "Wise Up Ghost"

How did the songs come about?

We had exchanged demo ideas much in a sketch form in the way that you can with using loops, and I did some remaking the loops from my own work, using little introductions from records of my own and juxtaposing lyrics over the top that hadn't been previously there as a way of illustrating this would be a new song. Then [The Roots] would come back with a beat laid down that would maybe take that at a third of the tempo or double the tempo and me then reworking the words and making a vocal arrangement in response to that instrumental part.

As you re-imagined some of your past lyrics and melodies, did you learn anything new about them?

Yeah, I think I did. One of my favorite recordings is "Bedlam" [from 2004's "The Delivery Man"] from which the verse of "Wake Me Up" comes. I wouldn't want anyone to mistake me and think this is in anyway a judgment against "Bedlam." "Bedlam is a fantastic piece of music on record...but it's a song in which the intensity of the music is pressing on the intensity of the images and the lyrics. That's one way to tell a story as a songwriter. There's another way as a songwriter, which is to have the music just fall back from the foreground, but be incredibly strong and empathic, the way Ahmir lays it down in "Wake Me Up." It's a slower more spacious beat....I didn't want that to pay off in the same chorus as it has before, so I lifted a few lines from a song which was written for the [2006] record, "The River In Reverse," I did with Allen Toussaint, which was reflecting on the catastrophes that followed Katrina. But I didn't want the image of needing to turn the river back, I just lifted the line, "Wake me up with a slap or a kiss/there must be something better than this" and stopped so I took it out where it still had hope in it. So you see what I'm doing, I'm not doing this for a magic trick or because I can't write new lyrics. I'm taking the ideas that I've said before and putting them together to reach a new conclusion and that new conclusion has been proposed by the music.

It sounds very liberating.

It is very liberating and it's not something that I felt the necessity to do all 12 songs.

MSN Music: "Wise Up Ghost" and more of this fall's most anticipated new albums

Would you be insulted if people focused on the groove and the funkiness and not on the lyrical content, which is quite biting?

I think I got used to that when I wrote [1979's] "Oliver's Army." I sold half a million copies of that single just in England. Everyone knew that song, but I could bet your life that a lot of people heard that song without having a second thought that it was about imperial misadventures in the army. In the same way, if somebody gets carried into this record on the great grooves that Ahmir and the Roots laid down and they secondarily get what I'm saying, that's fine. What isn't so enjoyable is you will get a chorus of people who have a little knowledge of my work and, therefore, they recognize the lyrics that I've collaged just in these four songs on the record and make a judgment upon the whole based upon their recognition of those parts, but they're not thinking any further than that.

That's the concern for your fans. For The Roots' fans, the concern is that their MC Black Thought isn't on here. Why?

Well, for one thing, a record's got to be a balance between the elements, and I mean you're talking about, it's not like I'm short of words. We really would be making some kind of poetry record if he and I were in competition on this for space. (Editor's note: Costello then goes on to hint that something else that will include Black Thought could be coming.)

You've talked a lot about stopping recording, but never about stopping touring. Why?

It's just a fact of life that I can make a living playing music on stage and I can't making records and a lot of people are finding that. It's clear that I'm not shy about writing new material, but [with] commercial releases, it has gotten to the critical stage where I didn't want to rely on the record release to justify playing shows. I bought the [Spinning Wheel tour] back to give me a framework in which to address all of my catalog. More and more it's about drawing in the audience in, telling the story and retelling the story, kind of like what we're doing with this record: it's accumulated narrative of songs written over a 35-year period. It's not just a recitation of a song because, "Here, we're going to play the one you recognize." I'm inside it for real. If I played all the so-called hits, which, by the way were never actually hits the first time, they're hits by the benefit of retrospective sentiment, I want to play them like they matter to me so they matter to the people that are listening. Otherwise, what are you doing up there?

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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