An inescapable anguish pulses beneath every song on The River in Reverse, as though Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint could somehow salve the wounds of the Hurricane Katrina disaster through their art. They come close, but lingering in the funereal shadows of “Tears, Tears and More Tears,” “International Echo,” and the searing title track robs the album of its fleeting effortlessness. Indeed, River in Reverse, while littered with sturdy rockers (a go-for-broke version of Toussaint’s “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and “Six-Fingered Man”), never truly recovers from the stinging rebukes of the title track, penned by Costello in the days following the horrors in New Orleans: “So count your blessings when they ask permission/To govern with money and superstition/They tell you it’s all for your own protection/‘Til you fear your own reflection.” Score one for Elvis: The album isn’t an overtly political one, but it gets in a few choice swipes during its course.
Produced by Joe Henry, River in Reverse is a sprawling affair, with Costello’s band, the Imposters, joining forces with Toussaint’s horn section and guitarist. According to the press release, much of the record was cut live, with the entire group performing in the same room and Costello singing with no overdubs. This approach lends a palpable electricity to the whole affair, helping charge the four songs Toussaint and Costello wrote together last fall (“Ascension Day,” “Broken Promise Land,” “International Echo,” and the mournful “The Sharpest Thorn”) with a kinetic sense of discovery. Peaking emotionally halfway through makes the final series of songs more of a slog, though Costello and Toussaint rebound slightly with “Six-Fingered Man.” As a potent reminder of what nature and man’s ineptitude hath wrought in Louisiana last year, The River in Reverse is a dark, passionate work that channels its rage toward redemptive joy.