For me, the most topical and moving moment on this marvellous album is the one I saw recorded at Piety Street in New Orleans last December: Allen Toussaint, a son of the Crescent City and a legend in its music, in the booth, singing the third verse of "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?," a funky song of giving and fraternity that he wrote and produced for Lee Dorsey in 1970. Standing at the mike in his characteristic jacket-and-tie, Toussaint sang in a creamy tenor as if he had no woes in the world. The words were heavy with nothing but: "What happened to the Liberty Bell / I heard so much about / It didn't ding dong / It must have dinged wrong / It didn't ding long."
Outside the studio, much of New Orleans was in ruins and deserted. It was just four months after the combined disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush White House's shocking, inept response. Inside Piety, it was impossible not to be moved by Toussaint's survivor's poise — he had lost his home — and the poignant disbelief in his voice: that a major US city could be betrayed and left to drown by the rest of the nation and its elected representatives. Later in the finished track here, Elvis Costello — a lifelong British devotee of New Orleans music — takes his own turn at those Liberty Bell lines, seething with impatience for penance and action, astounded that the country with so much could do so little.
Costello and Toussaint also sing together in rough-but-right harmony with a clash of local slang at the end, soul shorthand for consensus and solidarity: "Pray tell what's gonna happen to brother? Who's gonna help him get further? / One another / Is that the truth? / One another / Yeah, you right." It is the obvious answer to a simple question. It is amazing that we even need this album to remind us of something we should know by heart. But New Orleans, no matter how badly it's been beaten, is still a city in which people believe in dancing on the way home from a funeral. Inspired by tragedy, The River In Reverse — produced with vintage-R&B empathy by Joe Henry and recorded with Costello's Imposters and Toussaint's Crescent City Horns in just two weeks (one in LA, one at Piety) — is also rife with life and fight. This is a great record for and about New Orleans and one of the best the two men have ever made.
Costello, 51, and Toussaint, 68, have collaborated before (most notably on Costello's 1989 album Spike), and they were soon on-stage together in the immediate wake of Katrina, performing at benefit events in New York. But Toussaint's readiness to sing, play and co write new material with Costello has transformed the latter's original idea — an Allen Toussaint songbook album — into a record of forward classicism, a showcase for the contemporary resonance of Toussaint's greatest hits and his still-blooming gifts as a writer and pianist. When Costello shouts, "Solo!" over the rowdy thump of "International Echo," it's the fan in him, eager to hear the master tear up the 88s (which he does). You can hear the eternal student in the teacher too, in Toussaint's clever minor-mode inversion of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" (rightly co-credited) in the melancholy of "Ascension Day."
Of the older Toussaint numbers, "Nearer To You" was a US Top 20 ballad for Betty Harris in 1967 and Art Neville cut "All These Things" for Instant Records in 1962 (note Costello's game attempt at Aaron Neville's stratospheric flutter at the end). The others were all first recorded by Lee Dorsey in the '60s and '70s heyday of New Orleans soul: "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?," "On Your Way Down," "Tears, Tears And More Tears," "Freedom For The Stallion" and "Wonder Woman." This is not mere coincidence. Dorsey's dry growl was one of Toussaint's favourite voices, especially for message songs. "I can always see Lee moving through the world," he told New Orleans writer Jeff Hannusch, "and me back there watching and writing about it."
And it was a hard world. Images of slavery and "men buildin' fences to keep other men out" darken the gospel sigh of "Freedom For The Stallion." There may be no better R&B description of the karma wheel than "On Your Way Down": "It's high time that you found / The same people you misuse on your way up / You might meet up / On your way down." But where Dorsey sang those lines with a grainy confidence, like a man who knew the wheel would turn his way someday, Costello isn't so polite. The pace and arrangement are classic Toussaint but the revenge in Costello's voice is that of This Year's Model. "Tears, Tears And More Tears," a high stepping number about betrayal, shows Toussaint's knack for writing sad songs that feel good. But the despairing pitch of Costello's singing in the chorus isn't far from the rage and anguish that rose with the floodwater — or what I felt when I saw what was left of the Lower Ninth Ward, all but wiped away by the hell that poured in from the Industrial Canal.
In the new songs, Costello and Toussaint meet and blend with an ease missing from the epic-ballad ambitions of Costello's 1998 record with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. The opening waltz-time measures of "The Sharpest Thorn" are probably how Costello and Toussaint sounded together in their week of writing last fall — Toussaint's Sunday-morning piano and Costello's strong plaintive singing in perfect relaxed sync. And while Toussaint would never write a line like, "There's a place where infidels and showgirls meet", in Broken Promise Land, he has gentler ways of making his point, like the tumbling-piano figure in the chorus.
Costello, of course, is not shy about calling a spade a spade or a coward a coward. He wrote the title song last September, a few hours before debuting it at a Katrina benefit at New York's Town Hall. It is a riveting death march with an exhausted-ballad grace, a blunt indictment of America's collective responsibility for the death and devastation in New Orleans and the "uncivil war" that divides the country into the 'haves' and everybody else. The River In Reverse is our "Shipbuilding," and it is as angry and entrancing as the first one.
But a few songs later, Costello shows why he cares so much, in the lusty big-band R&B of International Echo. Written with Toussaint, it's really Costello's youth revisited, his memory of the excitement he heard in those old Minit, Ace and Instant 45s and what will be lost forever in a New Orleans without music or the many players now in exile or, worse, gone forever. "It can't be repeated, it can't be resisted," he sings, as Toussaint flies and dives behind him on the piano with pinpoint sass. It is the sound of one of New Orleans' greatest musicians refusing to give up — and of two unlikely brothers in arms who, on The River In Reverse, are already turning that water around.