On paper, this looked to be a sure winner. After all, Robbie Robertson had written some of the finest songs in rock history while with The Band (The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up On Cripple Creek) but his solo output has been spotty to say the least, with a concentration on soundtracks rather than songs since then. This new album promised new songs, many autobiographical, with musical help from fellow veteran rockers Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood along with the somewhat younger Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine).
Sure enough, Clapton and Winwood are all over the album, in fact, this could almost be considered a Robertson/Clapton album with Eric on more than half the tracks, co-writing three of them. And sure enough, the songs sound very autobiographical with Robertson remembering his old days on the chitlin circuit on the opener, Straight Down The Line, his days in New York with Warhol in When The Night Was Young, and his break-up with The Band on This Is Where I Get Off. In general Robertson remains a fine storyteller and an excellent lyricist. Vocally, he’s not particularly strong, and sings in a kind of whispered growl, but he employs a number of female vocalists (Angela McClusky, Dana Glover) and Clapton to help out.
So far, so good. But my disappointment comes with the actual music and the production. Robertson has co-produced the album with Marious de Vries, a keyboard player best known for his soundtrack work. So, instead of getting the rootsy, bluesy, guitar-heavy sound rock fans like myself were hoping for, the result is a slick, programmed rhythm track that sucks the life out of most of the tracks. Ol’ Slowhand is probably somewhat responsible as well. This is the same problem that has plagued most of Clapton’s solo work since the late 70s.
There are flashes of brilliance throughout the record. Winwood chimes in with some soulful organ playing on Fear Of Falling and the title track, while more cinematic than the rest of the album, also feels edgier. As for Reznor and Morello’s contributions…Trent adds some rather innocuous soundscapes to the otherwise mellow instrumental Madame X, while Morello tries to breathe some life into the rather tedious ode to guitarists-of-the-past, Axman.
The most frustrating aspect of the album is the interplay between Robertson and Clapton. Their playing is so restrained and tasteful that it never creates an emotional spark. The result is a rather bloodless collection of songs that is easily admired but also easily forgotten.
Click here to listen to This Is Where I Get Off from How To Become Clairvoyant: