This transatlantic reunion of the British rocker-cum-man of all musical milieus with Toussaint, one of the deans of New Orleans pop and R&B, has a remarkably timely — and relevant — feel considering several of the tunes are 10 to 20 years old or older.
Costello and songwriter-pianist-arranger Toussaint met when the former recorded parts of his 1989 album Spike with Crescent City musicians. Their new collaboration came together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastating ride through Louisiana, and not surprisingly, the album hits hardest in those numbers that take on the broad sweep of a cry for social and political justice.
The opening cut, "On Your Way Down," is anchored in the golden rule as it applies to interpersonal relationships, yet also targets the subject of life's haves versus its have-nots: "You think the sun rises and sets for you / But the same sun rises, sets and shines on the poor folks too."
Toussaint's gently funky "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" similarly decries the imbalanced scales of society, while Costello takes his best shot at the powers on high in the title tune. His signature acidic touch emerges in this tale of looming danger: "Count your blessings when they ask permission / To govern with money and superstition."
The undercurrent of anger is balanced in several gospel-tinged numbers, notably "Nearer to You," a waltzing declaration of romantic connection that becomes a fervent spiritual plea in this pair's passionate hands.
Joe Henry's production work is stoutly muscular, full of beefy New Orleans horn backing and Toussaint's deliciously fluid piano work and, on occasion, his honey-soaked singing. It's all draped in a muted sonic cloth that manifests the pervading idea of darkness descending on the land.
In the album's central conundrum, Costello sings, "What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?" This time, there's no answer conveniently blowing in the wind.