Robbie Robertson's How to Become Clairvoyant slams The Band; proves he belongsin rock
It’s been exactly 20 years since we last heard a solo album by Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band. Yes, there were a couple of 1990s albums inspired by Native American music, but How To Become Clairvoyant is Robertson's first album truly in the rock milieu since 1991’s Storyville, and just his third proper solo album ever.
That’s not to say Robertson hasn’t been prolific. It seems he’s always got something in the hopper — often as a soundtrack composer or supervisor in films, and usually alongside his good buddy Martin Scorsese. But his skills as a songwriter and a performer are undeniable, and it’s good to have him back in what I’m glad to report is very fine form.
Robertson is now 67 years old, so it’s no surprise that his sound has mellowed out a bit. Gone is the thunderous portent of his earlier two solo albums, replaced, for the most part, by contemplative musings on the bluesy and soulful side. The songwriter has also traded in much of the storytelling detail that made his work with The Band so memorable for a more metaphorical approach here, and while it’s not revelatory, it’s often stirring.
Don’t worry; there’s plenty of guitar on this record. Not only does Robertson contribute his emotionally charged playing, he gets help from special-guest axmen like Tom Morello and Robert Randolph. His most frequent collaborator on the album, however, is old buddy Eric Clapton, who writes or co-writes three songs here and plays on six.
Clapton’s contributions are sometimes problematic, especially when he lulls Robertson into the soporific tastefulness of his own recent solo output on “Fear Of Falling.” But the two old pros do get the heartbroken balladry of “Won’t Be Back” just right, their voices harmonizing as some woeful horns bemoan their sad state.
Guest stars aside, it's Robertson’s talent that shines through on How To Become Clairvoyant. The title track is a herky-jerky slice of slow funk, with Robertson’s croaky, expressive vocals pining for some sort of magic to get him through the more troubling aspects of reality. He also uses sultry backing vocalists to balance out that ragged voice in nostalgic tracks like “When The Night Was Young” and “The Right Mistake.” These songs might hew close to adult contemporary, but they’re adult contemporary done right, with the ace rhythm section of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas giving everything they touch some bluesy spunk.
Robertson also throws in a pair of lovely instrumentals that give a nod to his movie work, one of which, “Tango For Django”, sounds like an homage to “The Last Waltz Theme.”
The biggest surprise on the album is “She’s Not Mine.” For a guy who famously eschewed psychedelia with The Band, Robertson gets downright trippy on this wondrous ode to an elusive girl, as a Hammond organ streaks through the atmospheric proceedings.
As for “This Is Where I Get Off,” Robertson’s take on his departure from The Band, I’m a little torn. Taken out of context, it is a beautiful song, featuring a stirring chorus and some gut-wrenching guitar work. As a Band fanatic, though, I’m not sure about Robbie’s portrayal of his life with the group as a series of hardships. He’s got a right to tell his side of the story, but playing the victim seems to strike the wrong chord, considering the legacy that sublime quintet left behind.
For my money, Robertson explained his reasoning more succinctly and profoundly at the end of The Last Waltz when he called rock and roll a “damn impossible way of life.” Maybe that’s why it took him so long to get back to it.
But as How To Become Clairvoyant proves time and again, the guy was sorely missed.