A First Nations-inspired cadence heralds the start of a remarkable collaborative moment, a poignant tribute to a lost friend, and a striking new career path for Robbie Robertson. “Fallen Angel,” the opening track from his long-awaited eponymous solo debut, sounds at once like an archetypical Robertson song and like nothing he’d ever done before.
His seldom-heard voice, featured only twice on a lead with the Band, begins as a spectral presence — haunted and haunting — before Robertson settles into this song’s gruffly whispered narrative. Meanwhile, a bed of layered drums (courtesy of Manu Katche and programmer Martin Page) is overlayed with atmospheric flourishes from guest keyboardist Peter Gabriel and bassist Tinker Barfield. The effect is unsettling, indeed, for anyone expecting the homespun mythology of his earlier work. Former Band mate Garth Hudson and second guitarist Bill Dillon, who like Robertson was an alumnus of the Ronnie Hawkins travelling rockabilly revues, exist somewhere deep in this song’s swirling mix — but are not prominent enough to alter its cinematically modern, wholly new environment.
And yet Robertson remained, then as now, the narrator who’d so skillfully illuminated these all-but-forgotten mythical pathways with the Band, pining for a world that would never be again. That, if nothing else, remained firmly at the center of things. And as he sang in such unforgettable detail, as this fallen angel cast a shadow up against the sun, as he implored the departed to lay a flower in the snow, it became clear just how small scale the emotions — if not the musical constructions — were going to be Robbie Robertson. With “Fallen Angel,” this album’s namesake singer-songwriter showed he’d lost none of his flair for writerly detail, even as he suddenly began talking straight from the heart.
As such, the image of the late Richard Manuel, hanging from a shower-curtain rod in a Florida motel room, is never summoned. Even so, “Fallen Angel” quickly reveals itself to be about what was then the defining tragedy for this often-star crossed group. Never before had Robertson spoke with such utter frankness, with such lack of artifice, not even on the most personal of Band projects. (I’m thinking of 1970’s Stage Fright, what always seemed like Robertson’s overt attempt to reach the listing Manuel.) As Gabriel’s always-resonant backing vocal surrounds the chorus, it’s clear Robertson was seeking to loose himself from the conventions of his own earlier musical successes — and yet he hadn’t completely let go of what came before, either. It becomes clear, almost all at once, that Robertson is reaching for a falsetto which the late Manuel previously grasped with such ease, and that makes “Fallen Angel” all the more anguished, all the more real.
This transition into a more confessional approach hadn’t come easily — or cheaply. Robbie Robertson took years to complete, and ran up a huge bill for Geffen Records. “It made me feel good that I could do this,” Robertson told Chris Bourke, “but it was hard. Sometimes, I’d be fine working on it; sometimes it tore me apart.” Later, with Rolling Stone, Robertson called the album “a personal statement. When I was younger, I thought I was too young to really be personal. I thought that what I was feeling and thinking might be half-baked.”
Subsequent tracks like “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight” are more obviously connected to that celebrated period with the Band, if only because of the notable presence of Rick Danko. Meanwhile, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” arose out of a familiar obsession with Southern gothic iconography. But what “Fallen Angel” accomplished was altogether more memorable for this famously diffident storyteller: Here, Robertson sorted through something locked away inside his own chest, not his head. He crafted something which referenced the lyrical phraseology that had lifted his earliest work to greatness, while sharing something profoundly — and, to this point, quite surprisingly — intimate.
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