Monday, April 18, 2011

Album Review - Robbie Robertson: How to Become Clairvoyant

As a longtime fan of The Band, I always look forward to hearing solo releases from the surviving members. Robbie Robertson, guitarist and chief lyricist of The Band hasn't released a solo album in over a decade, but if you're at all a fan of his first two solo records (his self-titled debut and 1991's Storyville), How to Become Clairvoyant should be to your liking. As a whole the album is a bit uneven to my ears, even after multiple listens. The high points mark some of Robertson's best work to date, but the lows make me wonder if Robertson piled up more filler than he should have in the past decade.

In terms of production, while the overall product isn't quite as ethereal as Daniel Lanois' work on Robertson's first solo record, there are definite echoes to his production values. This record, co-produced by Robertson and Marius de Vries, hearkens back to that 1987 offering without adding much to the equation. Some might see this as a criticism, but it lends some validity to the idea that Robertson knows what he wants his music to sound like on record. The downside is that the tightness of the album's rhythm section (bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas) seems rigid and antithetical to the organic rhythms of Robertson's old Band. I'm a firm believer that an artist should be allowed to grow and develop over time. An artist in his late 60's shouldn't be writing the same kinds of songs he did in his late 20's. That being said, much of How to Become Clairvoyant seems to favor the stiff idioms of pop music instead of the fluid rock and roll, blues, and roots music he made his name playing.

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the significant role that Eric Clapton played in the making of this album. Not only did he collaborate with Robertson on the writing of three of the tracks, but he appears on seven of them. As a guitarist, it's borderline blasphemy to criticize the one they call 'Slowhand.' He's rightly influenced more than a generation of guitarists, and his songs were a big part of my own music education and development. That said, Clapton is always at his best when he sticks to playing blues. Many of his contributions to How to Become Clairvoyant (especially the co-written Fear of Falling) seem too similar to his '80's and '90's pop music. Elsewhere, Clapton's love of The Band's music shines through on tracks like She's Not Mine and Won't Be Back, where both his guitar and vocal harmonies pay respect to Robertson's former glory.

To my ears, the low point of the album is Axman, a love letter to guitar players fallen and still standing. While I like the idea that he's paying tribute to guitar masters like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, and the three Kings (Albert, Freddie, and B.B.), the intention doesn't match the end result. Even an appearance from a modern legend-in-the-making, Tom Morello, can't salvage this song that means well but ends up falling flat.

At the end of the day, it's still hard for me to forget that Robbie Robertson has written some of the best songs to ever come of out North American Rock and Roll. On How to Become Clairvoyant, even if the album as a whole is uneven, there are moments of genuine songwriting greatness. When the Night Was Young is spare in the great way that r&b ballads were in the '60's and '70's. Subdued guitar work and solid vocal harmonies mesh nicely with Robertson's wistful reminiscence of his road-weary musical youth. And though there is a bit of cynicism in the longing, it doesn't sound angry, but thankful and reflective of a long, strange musical journey.

Building on the strength of When the Night Was Young is the album's highest peak, the autobiographical This Is Where I Get Off. Aside from delivering an earnest and emotional vocal and guitar performance, perhaps for the first time ever, this song presents Robertson's account of his leaving The Band. Commenting on the looming tragedy that he tried to avoid by leaving the group, the song sounds that much more poignant when you know the actual tragedies that occurred within The Band. Yet the song doesn't come across as someone trying to come to grips with his survivor's guilt. There is a sense that, difficult as it must have been, Robertson knows even now that he made the right choice. The world would surely be a better place had his former band-mates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko come to the same realization that Robertson found.

The bottom line is a little muddy to me. There are some really strong songs on this record, but if you come to this record hoping to hear Music From Big Pink part two, you might not like what you hear. Fans who followed Robertson's iconic songwriting and guitar playing into his solo career will likely have more to enjoy. For me, even though it's not the best album I've heard from Robertson, I'm glad he's continuing to write relevant music.

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