How to Become Clairvoyant is, thus far, Robbie Robertson’s most blatantly personal solo release, taking on his split with the Band, nostalgia for his generation’s spent idealism, and the realization of a dark aftermath for the era’s hedonistic excesses.
That might sound like the kind of triumphal return many had hoped for over the 13 years since Robertson’s last album, 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. But then he issued a pair of uneven advance singles. While “He Don’t Live Here No More” boasted a clinched-jaw realism, “When the Night Was Young” came off as obvious, maudlin, even pollyanna.
It’s the risk, really, with confessional work. Robertson, who was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on April 2, has always fashioned rock songs from our myths, sorting out the ambiguities of faith, love and life through characters as memorable as they were flawed: Virgil Kane, Miss Fanny, the guys down at Nick’s Cafe, Carmen and the Devil, King Harvest. When you start talking about yourself, some of the storytelling magic can be lost. The subject itself is shrunk down to life-size form.
That’s something you never heard in the earliest, best work of his old outfit, simply called the Band, and (as with the Robertson-led work after that group’s initial three albums) it nearly sinks How to Become Clairvoyant.
Not that it starts out that way, as Robbie Robertson opens with one of the record’s best tracks. “Straight Down the Line,” featuring a churchy pedal steel aside from Robert Randolph, sounds like Bob Dylan on a blues bender — all nasty attitude and gruff groove. The squalling guitar lines provide their own ongoing conversation about salvation, and you’re not so sure that the devil isn’t winning this argument — despite a lick cribbed from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
“The Right Mistake,” which includes guest Steve Winwood, has its own interesting keyboard signature. Whirling and then crunchy, it recalls the angular quirks of Garth Hudson’s work in the Band. The song moves past those easy cliches, though, as Eric Clapton (who co-wrote three of the tracks here and plays on seven of the 12 tunes) dances through the deep exhalations of a scorchingly sensuous female backup singer. With this lascivious purr, Angelyna Boyd makes it utterly clear what the right mistake would be.
Robertson digs deeper into that lost relationship with his former partners in the Band on “This Is Where I Get Off,” a quiet meditation on leaving things behind — but not being able to completely shake them. The solo, watery and lonesome then angrily incisive, goes further even than Robbie Robertson’s words in showing the hold that time still has on the now 67-year-old.
Clapton then moves to the fore on “Fear of Falling,” singing the initial verse on what becomes a lithe, cool-rocking admission about the suckiness of getting older, but then finding love anyway. Fair enough. It becomes a kind of theme, though. Later, there’s “She’s Not Mine,” again featuring Winwood. Though Robertson seems to more fully inhabit his lyrical muse over the course of a couple of imaginative turns of phrase, he’s still covering well-trod ground. Then comes “Won’t Be Back.” Same thing. Despite its sharply pungent riff, and another smartly understated appearance from Clapton, the song is hobbled by its too similar storyline.
Ultimately, too, tracks like “Won’t Be Back” simply ache for the open-hearted sentiment of the Band’s departed vocalist Richard Manuel, who would have been 68 this week. There was a reason that Manuel, Levon Helm and Rick Danko were the featured voices on those old records. If anything, age has made Robertson’s already-weathered voice more brittle.
Best to focus on Robbie Robertson’s playing, a gnarled, chaotic style that should have been better highlighted on How to Become Clairvoyant‘s showcase tune, “Axman.” Unfortunately, the verse is so mawkishly nostalgic — eventually tiresome lyrics name drop Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt, Elmore James, B.B. King — that you’d be forgiven for dozing through the subsequent solo. A guest shot by Tom Morello, rebellious and inventive as ever, is all but wasted.
Similarly, the title track, with its Allen Toussant-inspired Storyville hoodoo, is another half-measure success. It aspires, of course, to a place among previous Robertson classics in that vein — from “Rag Mama Rag” to “Chest Fever” to “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” But we’ve already been there, heard that.
Thankfully, a pair of instrumentals on How to Become Clairvoyant boldly push back against these increasingly arid reminiscences, updating the atmospheric triumphs of Robertson’s work with Daniel Lanois, on his similarly patchy 1987 self-titled solo debut, and his unjustly overlooked Music for The Native Americans.
On “Madame X,” Robertson uses a sweeping keyboard texture from Trent Reznor as a platform, offering some of the jazziest and perhaps most vulnerable playing of his long career on the guitar. Importantly, the song moves outside of his own widely explored Americana conventions, it risks something, and it’s better for it. Then, there’s the album-closing “Tango for Django,” which had all the markings of a cringe-inducing stumble since he goes back to the well for another tribute, referencing Reinhart yet again. Instead, there is a turbulent orchestral interlude of cello, violin and accordion, then this darkly inspired rumination on the gut-string guitar.
With these tunes, Robbie Robertson deftly recaptures some of the mystery and power that surrounded the initial recordings by the Band — often sung in tandem, the lyrics could be indecipherable, yet still held great portent — and, it occurs to me, perhaps only because they are wordless. Free, finally, of the hard-copy truths of Robertson’s own life (however legendary and complicated it may be), How to Become Clairvoyant belatedly untangles itself from its own interior format.
Sure, truth can be stranger than fiction. Other times, however, it’s considerably less interesting.
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