Absolute Disaster: Robbie Robertson’s comeback disc
How to Become Clairvoyant
Review by Doug Heselgrave
It’s never a good sign when the most interesting cuts on a new album from one of the best songwriters of the 20th century are both instrumentals. But, sadly after giving Robbie Robertson’s highly publicized comeback album dozens of spins in all kinds of settings, I have had to admit to myself that ‘How to Become Clairvoyant’ is an embarrassing disaster from beginning to end.
I try to avoid writing bad reviews. It would be easy to do nothing except criticize musicians who are trying their best to make it in the business. I often cringe and wince when reading the cruel things that other journalists -who often can’t play a note of music themselves – write about up and coming artists. There is so much good music out there that it’s always seemed to me that writing scathing critiques is a waste of time – kinda like shooting fish in a barrel. But, for Robbie Robertson’s new album I’ll make an exception.
For, Robbie’s not always been a nice guy himself. He’s never been one to hold back in the press about his former band mates, but that’s not the problem here. Lots of mean guys perform very good music – being well adjusted and polite certainly isn’t a prerequisite to being a great artist. And, Robbie Robertson has – at times – been a great artist. When he was with the Band, he helped create some of the most memorable roots pop music ever played. I didn’t particularly care for his first Daniel Lanois produced solo album, nor did I enjoy ‘Storyville’ all that much, but each of them had moments of inspiration and innovation and I still listen to each of them occasionally. Far more interesting were ‘Music for the Native Americans’ and ‘Contact from the underworld of Redboy’ which explored and interacted with the musical roots of his First Nations ancestry. On each of these albums Robertson took musical risks by incorporating Native American rhythms with electronic beats and his unmistakeable guitar style. While neither of these albums was particularly successful in terms of sales, each demonstrated that Robertson was an artist who was not content to simply relive past glories. So, when it was announced that after more than a decade, Robertson had a new album ready that explored his rock and roll past, expectations were naturally high and I waited excitedly for a review copy to come in the mail.
Unfortunately, expectations and reality don’t always correspond and no matter what perspective I try and hear ‘How to Become Clairvoyant’ from, I have found almost nothing to enjoy on the album. It is surely the worst work he has ever done, and is right up there with the most awful albums ever released by a major artist.
It’s hard to know where to begin with expressing what’s wrong with this unmitigated disaster of a record. Robertson has always been a great – if somewhat self-indulgent – songwriter, but he has never tried to get away with writing such pedestrian cliché ridden lyrics as he passes off here. From beginning to end, the songs are nothing but self-indulgent crap. “He don’t live here no more” the first single from the album is nothing more than a catalogue of the bad addictive behaviour that plagued him when he was on the road with the Band. On it, he milks the same melodrama and rehashes the same mythic self-destructive material that he’s been going on and on about since the interviews in The Last Waltz. He tells us absolutely nothing new here. Moreover, he keeps resorting to the slow, speak singing that he’s been employing since his first solo album. But, this kind of delivery only works if you have something to say. He comes off sounding smug and aloof – none of the soul or weighty resignation that Tom Waits or Bob Dylan (with ‘Highlands’ or ‘Ain’t Talkin’) resonate when they speak rather than sing is in evidence anywhere.
Perhaps that’s the problem – none of these songs have any soul. In the past, Robertson created beautiful aching melodies that communicated more in one phrase than many artists could in an entire song. But, the arrangements here all seem to boil down to nothing but swirling textures and cold synth lines that bury the songs. Robertson – to his credit – has always had his ears open to new musical ideas and as we’ve come to expect, he’s brought some younger musicians on board this time around. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails both make contributions, but neither of them add much to the overall sound. Their talents – and those of Robert Randolph who also plays on the opening track, the strident ‘Straight Down the Line’ – are not fully utilized as none of them were given much to work with. Each sounds as if he’s playing within a tightly proscribed box with no room to move or breathe in. Truly a shame and a wasted opportunity.
Robertson’s guitar work – which was previously so nuanced and emotive – is often overwrought, overstated and lacking in emotion and feel on these songs. After listening to him peeling off cliché after cliché, one can only assume that Robertson has simply lost his chops through inactivity. You can’t release an album a decade, never tour and expect your music to remain vibrant and grow. By contrast, Robertson’s old friend, Eric Clapton who contributed to seven songs on the album sounds loose and confident on guitar. His fluidity only serves to highlight how tight and cramped Robertson’s playing sounds. Ironically, it is only on the two instrumentals, ‘Madame X’ and ‘Tango for Django’ that Robbie sounds loose and free. Neither track is overly ambitious or far reaching, yet they both exude a charm and flow that is completely missing on the other songs.
I don’t mean to insinuate that musicians who have been out of the spotlight for a while have no right to return and that only those who have stayed in the fray have a right to be there. Brian Wilson’s recent comeback albums have been worthwhile and Leonard Cohen’s return to performing has shown the world that he ‘still has the music’, and Joni Mitchell’s sporadic recordings have demonstrated a poise and maturity that is quietly inspiring. But, Robertson’s new music is unfortunately cold, hard and bereft of soul.
It’s sad. Perhaps, as I wrote at the outset, it would be more forgivable if Robertson put out an album every year or so and this one was just a failed experiment, but after years of slagging his old bandmates, it’s hard to have much sympathy for his own lack of chops and inspiration. It’s true that Rick Danko was often a junkie, alcoholic mess, but when he sang, something beautiful always happened. He honoured his music, and when I heard him sing ‘It makes no Difference’ near the end of his life, it was soaring, elegiac and beautiful. He had no lack of soul. Maybe Levon Helm’s recent albums, ‘Dirt Farmer’ and ‘Electric Dirt’ as well as his return to the road lit a fire under Robertson and made him feel compelled to record something himself. While it’s true that Helm hasn’t really broken any new ground recently or set the world on fire with innovation the way that Robertson has tried to in the past, his new music sounds heartfelt and authentic – something that could never be said about the sludge that Robertson has dredged up this time out.
I tried to listen to this album free of expectations and preconceptions. I didn’t need ‘How to Become Clairvoyant’ to sound like ‘The Band’, nor did I hope that he would repeat the sonic experiments that made his Native American inspired recordings so interesting, but I certainly didn’t anticipate such an absolute disaster as this. I keep thinking if I listen to the album just one more time, the songs will start to grow on me. But, the songs still sound cold, pretentious, overwrought and uninspired. Damn. Give this one a miss.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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