There has been plenty of rhetoric about New Orleans music post-Katrina, but just as 9-11 didn’t produce a wellspring of inspired popular music, Katrina has failed to inspire the bumper crop of musical observations that many predicted. There have been a few good songs written about the event and its aftermath to be sure, but the disaster is too large scale to be swallowed whole in a song.
While a return to what used to be considered normal is out of the question, the resumption of attention to the task at hand, the day-to-day business of making music, is the best that can be reasonably expected of New Orleans musicians. In this respect, Anders Osborne is to be congratulated for putting the difficult work in to produce the album’s worth of songs that make up Coming Down. Those looking for Big Statements may be disappointed, but Osborne sticks to what he knows. He found in New Orleans what so many others have discovered over the last century, a chance to become himself, to revel, even wallow, in the good times and eventually find salvation in a loving partner. His songwriting gifts have reflected the rollercoaster of emotions such behavior produces, and Coming Down returns to those strengths. The multi-chorus guitar solos that characterized the live album he released last year are absent from this record; instead, the songs themselves and Osborne’s R&B influenced vocalizations are the featured elements.
The title track leads off and sets the tone for the album, just as Ash Wednesday Blues did. Osborne admits his flaws, acknowledges his addictions and finds himself coming back down to earth with gravity’s acceleration. “Keep your arms wide open baby,” he tells his lover, “I’m comin’ down.” The flashback to those good times is delivered on “Summertime in New Orleans,” a catalog of simple Big Easy joys.
Osborne delivered “Oh Katrina” as a macho diatribe on his recent live album, but this studio version is imbued with sly style, Osborne giving it all the blue-eyed soul he’s got. The resemblance to Van Morrison’s work, especially in Osborne’s laconic, melismatic vocalizations, is striking. “Spotlight” sounds like nothing so much as a classic Morrison love song, as does the nostalgically regretful admission of weakness “Back on Dumaine,” Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone recalling Richard Davis’ bass on Astral Weeks. Similarly the solo acoustic recital “I’ve Got a Woman” shimmers poetically in its simple devotion to its subject.
Nashville’s most overt influence on Osborne’s writing appears to come in the traditional murder ballad “When I’m Back on My Feet,” a collaboration with his Nashville producer Troy Verges. This lengthy meditation on good and evil, murder, devotion and deliverance seems firmly in the tradition of country murder ballads until you consider some of the bizarre murder and suicide tales that have been nurtured in New Orleans for generations, with several grisly new chapters added since Katrina. The spectral presence of the dead in our lives, beckoning mutely for us to join them in whatever afterlife they inhabit while they haunt us in this one, is one of the uneasy legacies of Katrina, one which mocks the empty bravado of recovery rhetoric suggested by the song’s title.