Like Bruce Springsteen and his new album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Elvis Costello has turned to older songs (namely, those of New Orleans songwriter/producer/arranger Allen Toussaint) to subtly and serendipitously reflect the current national malaise. The River in Reverse, a decidedly post-Katrina and yet conveniently timeless project co-helmed by Costello and Toussaint, is a record that perfectly captures the feeling of disappointment that arises when the most advertised of expectations aren’t met. It’s easy to apply these types of emotions (and, therefore, the album itself) to the tenure of the times—and of course, Costello and Toussaint know what they’re doing here—but overall, the statement they’ve issued is far less reactionary and inflexible than, say, Neil Young’s hardheaded Living With War.
The River in Reverse isn’t about one thing, then, although it does regularly bemoan “men makin’ laws that destroy other men”, remembers when “we talked about love and peace of mind”, and helplessly hopes that “there must be something better than this”. Mixed in with the disillusionment and ire (byproducts, most obviously, of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and the lackluster response) are meditations on beauty; a song like “Nearer to You” puts both the New Orleans mystique and pop music itself up on pedestals. Tragedy, it would seem, bears more than tears.
Though its prosaic cover photo suggests a record of stuffy, old-fogey-skewed irrelevance, The River in Reverse is neither a vanity project nor an indulgent canonization of a (largely unknown) American musical legend (even if Costello’s initial intention was to record a long-overdue Toussaint songbook). It is, however, 1) the soul album Costello has always wanted to make, validated, perhaps, by Toussaint’s presence; 2) the full-fledged collaboration with Toussaint that previously minor meet-ups (a 1983 cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” and Spike‘s “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”) had only hinted at; and, 3) ultimately, not as brilliant a record as it has every right to be.
That’s not to say The River in Reverse isn’t strong, because it’s a frequently inspired album with tight performances from the Imposters (Costello’s current band featuring Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, and Davey Faragher) and the Crescent City Horns, along with typically dusk-hungry production by Joe Henry. Costello’s celebrated his influences on record numerous times before, most notably 1995’s all-covers album Kojak Variety and Painted from Memory, his 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach. The River in Reverse finds that best-of-both-worlds middle ground, combining a selection of Toussaint songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s along with material newly written by the two.
Toussaint is a kindred creative spirit, perhaps more so than may be immediately apparent; like Costello, he’s built an incredibly eclectic résumé, from producing the Meters (including 1970’s Look-Ka Py Py) to supplying fresh horn charts for the Band’s back catalog (the 1972 live album Rock of Ages) to writing and recording his own original material. Some of his solo material, like the psychedelia-dabbling “Southern Nights” (Glen Campbell’s inferior, de-psychified version was the hit), defies easy or expected categorization—in other words, Toussaint is hardly just a manifestation of the brassy, buoyant New Orleans stereotype.
Toussaint’s older songs make up a little more than half of the material on The River in Reverse—its best material, incidentally—including songs that had previously been recorded by Lee Dorsey (“Tears, Tears and More Tears”, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?”, and “Freedom for the Stallion”), Betty Harris and Bettye Lavette (“Nearer to You”), and even Costello himself (“All These Things”, recorded in 1986 and included on Rhino’s expanded reissue of Blood and Chocolate). Costello leaves little wriggling room in his gung-ho interpretations of Toussaint’s catalog: he wrings a singed, snarky vocal out of the humid riposte “On Your Way Down”, sinks his teeth deep into the B3-soaked ballad “Nearer to You”, and delivers the juicy melody of “Freedom for the Stallion” like a knuckle sandwich. It’s in these songs that The River in Reverse succeeds blindingly, with Toussaint arranging some of his most beloved songs for a new audience, and Costello, the connoisseur, giving himself over to the object of his musical affection.
That the songs co-written by the pair suffer slightly is a result of occasionally overwrought and/or intellectualized composition. Both “Broken Promise Land” and “International Echo” have their momentums spoiled by cumbersome choruses; the former, in particular, sees its melody go AWOL in the blink of an eye. Simple logic says that Costello is responsible for the distractingly ornate misfires. While his sense of adventure can’t be faulted, it’s apparent that the groove-steady songs themselves aren’t necessarily clamoring for structural escapades. Faring better are the tingling “Ascension Day”, which recycles the boisterous piano of Toussaint’s “Tipitina”, and “The Sharpest Thorn”, which casts its striking imagery (“the sharpest thorn defending the rose”) in a New Orleans funeral/deep-soul ballad blend.
The title track is the sole song written by Costello alone. It’s good, though admittedly not up to snuff with Toussaint’s originals; lyrically, it’s a crafty use of Katrina imagery to summon the more universally taxing concerns of late, but it lacks a memorable melody (a problem that seems to plague just about every pop songwriter in their later years). Toussaint’s tense horn arrangement, the saving grace, responds prudently to Costello’s call-up (“Wake me up!”), assuring that the song’s stubbly blues vamp and swampy Southern vibe don’t merely retreat into a superfluous retread of Costello’s last rock album, The Delivery Man.
That kind of stylistic complement is what keeps The River in Reverse in check—even the master has to reel the student back in on occasion. Thematically, both Costello and Toussaint see eye-to-eye, recognizing the extent to which the world sticks to its word. “What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about?” Toussaint sings in a rare lead vocal on his own “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” “It didn’t ding long… it must have dinged wrong.” Costello puts it in even plainer language, lamenting “a place where words mean nothing or much less”. That’s a frightening vision for men who rely on sound and language to communicate, one that this kind of album can only hope to ward off or, with any luck, disprove entirely.