Robbie Robertson – [Album]

Thursday, 21 April 2011

As a member of The Band, Robbie Robertson wrote dozens of classic songs, including "The Weight,” "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” He also worked regularly with Bob Dylan – playing guitar on several tracks on 1966's Blonde on Blonde and touring with the singer on his infamous 1966 "electric" tour (among others) – and recorded 1974's Planet Waves and 1975's The Basement Tapes along with both Dylan and The Band. Since breaking up The Band in 1976, Robertson has released a few well-received solo records, served as a producer for Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison and Roy Orbison and has been involved as a producer, consultant or music supervisor on countless Martin Scorsese films, spanning from 1980's Raging Bull through 2009's Shutter Island. While Robertson needs no introduction to most listeners, it is important to revisit his past achievements and remember that he was once one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of his generation when one listens to his new album, How To Become Clairvoyant. Keeping in mind what Robertson's name once meant is what makes this review so difficult to write, but that memory is also what makes this album so disappointing. It's downright frustrating that, on How To Become Clairvoyant, Robertson seems aware of his position in his generation but unaware of how much his talent has deteriorated. In a recent Maclean's interview, the singer was quoted as saying "a lot of people from my generation still do it, but it’s not very good: [they] can’t write songs anymore. On this record  . . . I know I’ve done something really special. I’m relieved, because I look around, and that’s not the rule of thumb." While I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiments regarding his generation, I adamantly disagree that he is any different. On How To Become Clairvoyant, Robertson embodies the rule of thumb; he has delivered an album that is generic, dated and flat in both its songwriting and musicianship.

What first caught my attention when How To Become Clairvoyant was announced was the rumor that Robertson had hired California band Dawes to be his backing band. Somehow this felt reminiscent of Dylan hiring The Band or Neil Young hiring Pearl Jam. That isn't to say that either of those singers needed a jolt of the same magnitude Robertson does, but it provided hope that Dawes would breathe some life back into Robertson's ailing solo output. What I missed in the story was that they were only being hired for the promotional shows and do not appear, as a band, anywhere on the record. Instead, the album features several contributions from old-guarders like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, who both do nothing to mask the dullness of the material and instead seem to further compliment and inform its dated sound ("Fear of Falling,” "The Right Mistake").

With that indictment issued, there are still a few moments worth mentioning on How To Become Clairvoyant. On "This Is Where I Get Off" Robertson addresses his split with The Band. After thirty years, one has to wonder why he feels compelled to tackle this subject now, because the official story for their break up is well documented in The Last Waltz. The track does nothing to offer any new insight or pay tribute to the originality of his former band and lacks any sort of concrete attempt at explanation, reconciliation or comment. On "Madame X" Trent Reznor makes an appearance providing what Robertson calls "beautiful and haunting, additional textures.” In all honesty, "Madame X" may be the best song on the record, not only because it is an instrumental but also because it has a cinematic feel that shows growth in Robertson's writing, likely as a result of having worked on Scorsese's soundtracks for so long. Or maybe it's just because Reznor did such a great job on it. Tom Morello's contribution to "Axman" is also noteworthy as it provides a much-needed spark of excitement to the generally somber tone of the album.

Overall, one really has to wonder which artists of his generation Robertson was referring to in his Maclean's statement. Surely, he can't think that How To Become Clairvoyant is on the same level as the output of Young or Dylan, who arguably would be the least affected by the sort of songwriting deterioration he outlined to Maclean's and would be the best examples of artists still creating relevant music with whom he would have once been considered a peer. Maybe he is referring to Levon Helm's recent solo work, in which Helm isn't listed as a songwriter? If that is the case, I would much rather ramble with Levon than suffer any more instruction on clairvoyance with Robertson. Ultimately, How To Become Clairvoyant is a disappointment in itself, but it is even more disappointing that Robertson didn't have the foresight to realize his own failure.



How To Become Clairvoyant
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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