Costello is an American artist now. His laser-pen is no longer trained on the provincial jackals, political hypocrites and poor-me celebrity whores of little Britain. Now, it’s all Fifth Avenue torch songs (North), Southern Gothic concept albums (The Delivery Man) and, with The River In Reverse, drawing inspiration from one of the United States’ great songwriters.
Costello re-established an occasional acquaintance with Allen Toussaint while the legendary New Orleans writer and pianist was holed up in New York, having been evicted by Hurricane Katrina. Inevitably — this is Costello, after all — the idea of a full collaboration soon followed, half of it cut in still-ravaged New Orleans with a combination of local players and Costello's Imposters. The result is his most enjoyable record for a decade: ribald, melodic, funky, tear-stained when appropriate, above all drenched in soulful humanity.
Scattered amongst vibrant new readings of Toussaint gems like "Tears, Tears And More Tears" and "Freedom For The Stallion," the handful of co-compositions need to be on their game and generally are: "International Echo" is the theme from Only Fools And Horses married to Costello’s own "Fish ‘N Chip Paper," reverberating with the joy of making music. The title song, by contrast, is funereal, its merciless beat slow-marching relentlessly to the morgue, the words picking their way through the nightmare of an unnamed but hellishly evoked New Orleans. It’s the only time The River In Reverse doesn’t wear its political anger lightly, and is all the more effective for it.
In terms of Costello, the song simply reaffirms that Uncle Sam's gain is our loss. However, there is no doubting the album’s true star. The River In Reverse is a timely reminder of the stature of the super-talented Toussaint, emphasising the fluidity of his playing and the brilliance of his songbook, not to mention how many of his lyrics remain depressingly relevant today. Indeed, weighted as it is towards Costello, the album’s only drawback is that you end up aching for more of his collaborator.