It has been more than ten years since Robbie Robertson, he of The Band, has put out a new record, but come April 5 that vacuum will be filled. He has a new album, How to Become a Clairvoyant, and it’s a gem. There are twelve songs on the CD: eight written by Robertson alone, two in collaboration with Eric Clapton who also plays on a number of cuts, one with album co-producer, Marius de Vries, and one Clapton solo composition. Most are highly personal songs written with compelling honesty. They are about his high flying days in New York; they are about his wrenching decision to leave The Band. He says: “I’ve never before been able to write about those times. . . . But enough time had passed that suddenly all of these thoughts and feelings finally crept under the door with a certain urgency.” It is an urgency that comes out clearly in the passion of his performance.
Probably of greatest interest biographically is his treatment of his exit from The Band in “This is Where I Get Off.” It evokes the problems that come with success, how “working the graveyard shift” will “drift” you “off course.” It never gets more specific than “somebody done me wrong along the way,” but there is a real feeling of sadness at making this break that was never “part of the plan.” Besides, there is an infectious hook that will echo in your head long after the song ends. “The Right Mistake,” with its paradoxical title may also be a comment on the break, although if it is, it is even less specific than “This is Where I Get Off.”
“He Don’t Live Here No More” is a confessional: “there was a cloud hanging over me.” It is the bluesy acknowledgment of a life run amok. The title song, “How to Become a Clairvoyant,” talks about some of the weirdness in New York around the Chelsea Hotel and environs, the home away from home for a good many of the avant garde artists back in the day. Patty Smith talks about it at length in her award winning memoir, Just Kids. It was a freaked out place and the song mirrors that spaced out quality, especially as it ends. You have to wonder if while looking back at all of the excess and strangeness, there isn’t also some regret for a time when one was still young and nothing seemed impossible. “When the Night Was Young” is a more overt lament for the dreams of youth, the time when you thought you could change the world. “She’s Not Mine” couches the regret over the choices we make in a big wall of sound that just seems to fall apart at the end.
“Fear of Falling,” written and sung with Clapton, has that unmistakable Clapton sound, and his instrumental “Madame X” is as sweet a melody as any he’s written. Steve Winwood is featured on the organ in “Fear of Falling” as well as two other songs on the album. “Tango For Jango,” the other instrumental on the disc is something quite apart from everything else on the album. Besides Robertson on gut string guitar and keyboard, it features de Vries also on keyboard, and Frank Marocco on accordion, Anne Marie Calhoun, violin, Tina Guo, on cello. The rhythm section is bassist Palladino and Ian Thomas on drums. Not only is the orchestration unique for this album, it is also the only piece that doesn’t highlight the guitar.
This is not strange. What would be strange would be any album that features such great guitar players as Robertson and Clapton that didn’t highlight the guitar. Add to the mix on selected tracks Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Robert Randolph and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and you’ve got a high powered crew that promises some real excitement, a promise that is delivered in spades. It is no accident that the album includes a thumping tribute to the great guitar players: “Axman.” This is Robertson’s acknowledgement to the masters of his instrument. It is his nod to his musical ancestors, just as “Straight Down the Line” is an ironic look back at the beginnings of rock when all too many saw it as the work of the devil: “the demons are out tonight.” Robertson sings with a gleeful demonic rasp, and the cut ends with a powerful driving guitar solo. Guitars—fantastic guitar playing is all over this album.
Robertson has been busy writing music for the movies. Indeed, we are told he broke off work on this album to work on Shutter Island for long time associate Martin Scorsese. He says it gave him a chance to “clear his head.” If this album is any indication, his head is plenty clear. Let’s hope it stays clear and there’s more to come.