Robertson Falls Short of Former Greatness

Robbie Robertson -- 'How To Become Clairvoyant' -- 429 Records -- 3 STARS

Robbie Robertson’s newest release may be titled “How To Become Clairvoyant,” but the fabled guitarist spends far more time looking back on his accomplished career than into the future. Robertson, former songwriter and guitarist for The Band as well as sideman to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Eric Clapton, among others, has a large share of experience about which he can reminisce. Robertson’s first release in 13 years is a lilting retrospective that recalls both the good and the bad of his long career, and, while the album breaks no new ground, it easily displays his prowess as a songwriter.

After years of playing alongside others, “How To Become Clairvoyant” puts Robertson firmly in the spotlight with a strong ensemble that includes Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Tom Morello. Although he rarely sang with The Band, Robertson makes good use of his distinctive, sandpapery voice on “Clairvoyant.” His vocal style ranges from quiet somberness to rusty growling, his slight rasp contrasting nicely with the smoother guitars and pianos that make up the majority of the album’s dense instrumentation.

Robertson may not be known for his voice, but he has always been acclaimed as a songwriter. Responsible for many of The Band’s most popular songs, including “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Robertson has a knack for creating memorable melodies to accompany lyrics steeped with historical or religious significance. The first three songs on “Clairvoyant” are an excellent example of Robertson’s intimate understanding of songcraft. “Straight Down The Line” is an infectious blues jaunt; “When the Night Was Young” is a tender retrospective; “He Don’t Live Here No More” is a propulsive rocker. All of the album’s melodies have a tempered, nostalgic quality that lends it thematic cohesiveness while recalling The Band’s finesse.

Robertson examines his past in great detail, and he provides both specific vignettes and general reflections throughout the album. “When the Night Was Young” tells of his youthful idealism at the start of his career—“We could change the world / Stop the war”—and, in many ways, the album is a portrait of the decline of this idealism—a portrait which culminates on “This is Where I Get Off.” The song chronicles the 1976 breakup of The Band: “Walking out on the boys / Was never the plan / We drifted off course / Couldn’t strike up the band.” However, Robertson doesn’t sound regretful about his actions, just comfortably weary and content with his journey.

Despite the stirring vestiges of his old creativity, Robertson’s occasional reliance on lyrical and musical clichés detracts from the strength of his songwriting. “Right Mistakes” is practically a list of clichés—“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure / And one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure”—and the titular song finds Robertson making misguided attempts to replicate Dylan-esque storytelling—“As it turns out Miss Muffet wasn’t afraid of spiders at all / She slipped across the dance floor at the masquerade ball.” Musically, Robertson overuses electric guitar duels—he seems to insert them at every opportunity. The guitar playing on the whole is surprisingly bland and tentative, as evidenced by the cautious and formulaic solo on “He Don’t Live Here No More.”

The album also lacks the grittiness and texture that propelled not only The Band but also Dylan’s controversial 1966 tour, of which Robertson was part. His electric guitar work with Dylan was purposefully antagonizing and harsh. The sound marked a drastic shift for Dylan and inspired some of his most celebrated work, but the revolutionary dissonance of Robertson’s past is replaced by the restraint of this album. The guitar riff and melody on “Fear of Falling” are reminiscent of another Robertson-penned classic, “Chest Fever.” Where “Chest Fever” possesses a distinct soulfulness, though, “Fear of Falling” is gentle to the point of tepidity. The end of the album drags due to an excess of monotonous ballads and instrumentals that fall prey to these same weaknesses.

Despite its faults, however, “How To Become Clairvoyant” is overall an enjoyable album that offers us a glimpse at a wistful patriarch near the end of his career. While other stars respond badly to aging, Robertson proudly displays his age and experience. He’s had a full career, and he doesn’t sound at all regretful when he sings, “This is where I get off / This is where I move on.”

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