Erstwhile leader of The Band, Jaime Royal ‘Robbie’ Robertson has enjoyed a curiously disjointed solo career since taking leave of the influential Canadian quintet in 1976. A smattering of studio and film production work, a couple of soundtracks and four inconsistent solo albums have all failed to match the heights the 20-something Torontonian achieved in penning classics like The Weight or The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Yet the enduring pervasiveness of such songs will guarantee him iconic status to the grave.
Quitting The Band is just one of the rear-view mirror topics the now 67-year-old Robertson addresses on this nostalgia-soaked album, his first of the 21st century ("We drifted off course / We couldn’t strike up the band," he sighs in the compellingly confessional This Is Where I Get Off). Indeed, the sense of a man coming to terms with his past is palpable throughout many of How to Become Clairvoyant’s dozen, slickly produced essays.
Conceived in conjunction with old six-string compadre Eric Clapton, who guests alongside organist Steve Winwood, pedal steel player Robert Randolph and, bizarrely, Trent Reznor on ‘sonic textures’, it’s an album as rich in tonal layers as it is strewn in guitar solos. Arguably, Robertson’s signature guitar style, all slippery Curtis Mayfield licks and slyly funky, tremolo string bends, is more in evidence here than on anything he’s released since demise of The Band. The fourth-best singer in that group also puts his serviceable baritone to surprisingly effective use, particularly on the mooching, soulful title-track and Won’t Be Back, a gently mournful, lovelorn ballad that might have been tailored for the larynx of The Band’s Richard Manuel.
While there’s much to marvel at, not everything convinces. Lumpy blues efforts The Right Mistake and Fear of Falling (partly sung by Clapton) feel phoned in, titles from central casting in search of a coherent song. And while sonically the shimmering, cavernous She’s Not Mine recalls Robertson’s eponymously titled, Daniel Lanois-produced 1987 solo debut, it also sounds like something a particularly hymnal Deacon Blue might have knocked up. A rock’n’roll eminence grise deserves better than that.
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