2011 / Music

Review: Robertson’s ‘Clairvoyant’ Lacks Brilliant Insights

Band Guitarist Releases Fifth Solo Album

“Somewhere down the crazy river” that is rock ‘n’ roll history, Robbie Robertson has gotten old. Really old.

Photo: 429 Records

Photo: 429 Records

Once, Robertson was a rare musical triple threat: guitar ace, songwriting visionary and master orchestrator of talent. Now, the 67-year-old former leader of ’60s roots-rock pioneers, the Band, strikes an image as a puttering old grandpa who can scarcely play an exciting lick anymore while at the same time, boring us with long-winded songs focused on tales of increasingly banality. His new solo album, “How To Become Clairvoyant,” is easily the most vanilla creation of his solo career. If we were to recast his Old South elegy “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into this context, it would be titled “The End Of A Once Great Songwriter.”

That Robertson would find his musical career was half past dead at this point in time is an odd fate. It certainly didn’t start out this way. His journey through rock legend can be traced through some of the most storied episodes in pop music, typically featuring the Toronto native as an active participant. He rubbed shoulders with Sun Records icons and blues masters in the road houses and honky tonks of North America in the late ’50s and early ’60s while playing with rockabilly also-ran Ronnie Hawkins. He became Bob Dylan’s right-hand man during the most tumultuous and creative periods of his career. With Dylan’s encouragement, Robertson and his comrades eventually struck on out on their own as the Band and released two seminal albums that literally invented the modern musical celebration of American roots music, spawning scions as folk-rock, country-rock, alt-country and much of contemporary country music. Finally, after years of riding high (pun intended), the Band played their farewell concert, which turned into the rock doc “The Last Waltz,” directed by Martin Scorsese. The star-packed movie was not only a goodbye to one of rock’s most original and overlooked combos, but a symbolic adieu for the gluttonous, drug-ravaged classic-rock era.

Each of these turns of fortune came to pass chiefly because of Robertson’s rampant ambition and lust for intellectualism beyond he and his Band-mates station as sidemen and the grueling life on the chitlin circuit. Robertson’s desire for musical perfection, for a transcendence from endless one-nighters and to achieve the kind of expert storytelling that he found in books and film consistently put him and the Band at the right place at the right time.

And it was Robertson who scripted the Band’s rise. At the same time that the Band began its first forays on it own, Robertson demonstrated that his compositional talents were as good, if not superior, to what he could do with a Fender Telecaster. Robertson revealed himself to be a songwriting auteur on a truly cinematic scale. His lyrical conceptions and musical vistas were every bit sweeping as a John Ford scene and could be just as heartfelt. Functioning as the frustrated filmmaker that he wished he was, Robertson gave the Band a musical purpose with his songs and arranged it so each member contributed to the greater whole. He kept the Band together even when substance abuse and infighting had robbed the group of its idyllic collaborative spirit.

After the Band’s dissolution in 1976, a burnt-out but still ambitious Robertson lost much of his taste for music-making. Instead, he buddy-ed up with Scorsese and ingratiated himself among the Hollywood elite. He assembled scores and film soundtracks for his pal while he eased into the kind of relaxed lifestyle that he likely felt he deserved from years of marauding on the road. As such, it took Robertson more than a decade to get back in the saddle and release a proper solo album.

Although his four subsequent solo releases won critical praise and nabbed awards (including a Grammy in 1998), all the theme-heavy records sold poorly and signaled that Robertson could still conceive a great concept for an album, but had trouble delivering on that promise. To compensate for this deficit, Robertson relied on another tell-tale characteristic of his solo strategy: employing all-star talent. His albums featured such A-list guests as U2, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel and producers like Daniel Lanois and Howie Z. to buttress his creations. While the songs or performances weren’t especially good, like a Hollywood party, the starpower present made it all seem better.

After 13 years of silence, Robertson again has some stories that he wants to tell with “How To Be Clairvoyant” — many of them alluding for the first time to his own personal mythology. It’s shocking, none the less, that Robertson has whiffed this one so badly.

As in past, Robertson goes back to the familiar game plan and calls on old and new faces to round out the cast. He enlists ’60s rock cohorts like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood as well as more contemporary contributors like pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor. Weirdly, except for Clapton’s meek vocals and fat guitar lines, the presence of the other guests is largely unidentifiable and adds little noticeable value to these cuts.

More disturbing is how often Robertson comes across like a storyteller who has lost the plot. His baritone sing-speaking style functions well as a narrator, but these are gentle bedtime stories that he’s telling. Robertson stuffs these precision-less songs with lyrical platitudes so as to render them harmless. When an opportunity arrives to become illustrative or to offer wisdom, Robertson resorts to cliches. The fact that these tracks are built off anecdotes from his life make it all the more puzzling. There’s a sense that he’s finally become bereft of ideas.

The worst offenders are many. “When The Night Was Young” is an easy-going hayride through the sights and sounds of Robertson’s years on the road and hobnobbing with cultural heavyweights during the hectic ’60s. Oddly, the pace is smooth, augmented by a murmuring pump organ and peaceable background voices, which continually signal those heady days were nothing disturbing or earth-shattering. A pleasing, three-note guitar lick serves as a clarion call that listeners are headed into another vignette of Robbie’s biography. Each segment recreates a world and characters through words and music that are surreal, but beyond their appearance there, they don’t yield anything revealing. “Now, Andy Warhol is in the hotel lobby/Waiting for the late-night muse/But she won’t be back before the morning/She is gone downtown to hear some blues,” he rasps, never getting to a point and then moves on to something else. Listeners have to ask if there was a purpose to this beyond the fact that he just saw some famous people and/or saw some weird things.

“Straight Down The Line” has more blues atmospherics and some excellent slide guitar breaks courtesy of Randolph, but the track lacks the incisiveness that would make this remarkable. Robertson talks in the first verse about his and the Band’s run-in with blues harp master Sonny Boy Williamson in the months leading up to the Dylan connection and yet, he transports a meeting-your-hero moment into just a convenient segue way to get to the pedestrian chorus that raises up a blah phrase that Williamson said to them and spins it as holy writ.

Equally disconcerting is Robertson’s underwhelming guitar playing throughout “Clairvoyant.” Years of trading licks with country, blues and rockabilly guitarists like Roy Buchanan had sharpened Robertson’s six-string skills to fearsome levels. Such was his reputation in the ’60s and ’70s that Robertson could intimidate other axe-slingers like Clapton or Mike Bloomfield with his white-hot licks and understated delivery. Now, perhaps all those years without live performing has resulted in atrophy, leaving Robertson will little of the old command that he once possessed. His pinched-note style now never slowly explodes as it did in the old days. He just sounds like he’s waiting around for lightning to strike. When he’s mixing it up with modern-day players like Randolph or Morello on select tracks (including the boring blues-stroll “Axman,” in which Robertson presides over a ceremony honoring the guitar-hero cult), the new guys are oddly restrained as if they’re playing gently with the old veteran.

The most poignant song on the record is his lyrical ode to breaking up the Band, “This Is Where I Get Off.” Like the group’s dissolution itself, none of this goes right. The music is a bloated power ballad whose sluggish cadence reminds audiences of the final song played at a prom none of us wanted to end up at. All the ingredients for a powerful musical moment are here. The song’s premise touches an emotional powder keg, soulful backing singers wail, whimsical keyboard lines recall contributions from Band keyboardist Garth Hudson and a long-awaited guitar duel with Clapton is slated for the climax. And yet, all of these amount to nothing. Instead of hearing Robertson’s logic, we get more fortune-cookie wisdom. Clapton and Robertson trade some guitar lines, but then, swiftly retire, likely to talk about whose Armani suit is sharper. This is just a blockbuster disaster.

Back in the Band days, Robertson got credit for writing from a perspective beyond his own experiences. On “When You Awake,” he wrote about a young boy ready to receive some wisdom from his cherished elders: “Sat upon my grandpa’s knee/And what do you think he said to me?” On “Rockin’ Chair” he was convincing as an old sea dog longing for the easy life. As such, listeners might expect age and experience would agree with Robertson. It doesn’t. “Clairvoyant” is the clearest indication yet that Robertson isn’t a musician anymore. He’s a legend now. Let him kick back and relax.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2011 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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