Released some four years after Cahoots, this long-awaited followup studio effort would arrive well after the feverish acclaim for the Band had cooled, well after expectations for something equalling their superlative initial trio of albums had ebbed.
Perhaps in keeping, Northern Lights-Southern Cross finished as the Band’s lowest-charting Robbie Robertson-era album on their native Canadian charts — and, at No. 26, a far cry from their Top 10 Billboard showings for Music from Big Pink and the Brown Album.
Time, however, has been kind to this 1975 project — ultimately revealing its deeper complexities, underscoring its typically overlooked triumphs and, at least for me, repositioning Northern Lights-Southern Cross in the company of the Band’s best work. At times, it’s even superior to 1970’s Stage Fright, an achievement that hardly seemed possible a scant few years before as the Band struggled with its collective muse.
Northern Lights-Southern Cross, instead, found them reborn — if not entirely as creatively robust as before. Robertson, in contrast with the Band’s earliest period, was handling all of the songwriting duties by 1975. Still, his bandmates were once again adding new splashes of musical and interpretive brilliance to these initial canvases.
They made use, for the first time, of the then-new 24-track equipment at their own California-based Shangri-La studios, something that allowed the Band’s ace-in-the-hole multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson an even wider pallette of colors. Both Rick Danko and Levon Helm would come away from Northern Lights-Southern Cross with new signature moments. Despite participating in what would ultimately be a swansong for the five-man lineup, this group sounded whole again.
Robertson, in an exclusive SER Sitdown, will be offering song-by-song commentary as we explore the breadth of this often-forgotten project, beginning with the Helm-sung opener: a slinky flash of spooky R&B grit powered along by Richard Manuel’s height-of-cool clavinet and a far more upfront approach by Robertson on the guitar. Hudson answers with a series of embellishments on both the Lowrey and synth, even as Helm and Danko combine for a chorus that holds all of the dark portent of a whispered tarot reading.
Then there’s Robertson’s solo, which remains a skittering, eye-opening revelation — and one that hints at everything which will ultimately make Northern Lights-Southern Cross a different kind of album from the Band. There’s a bold modernity to these extended (and to that point very rare) guitar ruminations, and this sense of adventure is only heightened by Robertson’s tough work on the wah and whammy throughout Northern Lights-Southern Cross.
The reasons for that more open-ended approach on his instrument, Robertson tells us, were as layered as the album’s sound itself. “Two things,” he says: “One, was the material itself cried out for more depth in the guitar approach — and then, at the same time, I had a bit of a hunger, and I just wanted to do it because I could.”
Never before had Robertson allowed himself that kind of space. He filled it with a furious abandon — right through to this track’s thrillingly elastic close, and then beyond.