I’ve never thought of Robbie Robertson as a particularly sentimental songwriter. Certainly there were powerful songs of loss for the Band and on his solo work, but even those were somewhat hard-bitten, even cynical at times. On his first album in more than ten years, How To Become Clairvoyant (429 Records/Macro-Biotic Records), Robertson is wearing his heart on his sleeve for the first time in his career.
The album really turns on two of the twelve songs in the set. The first of these, a wistful reflection on youthful idealism called “When the Night Was Young” recalls a time when anything and everything seemed possible.
We had dreams
When the night was young
We were believers
When the night was young
We could change the world
Stop the war
Never seen nothing like this before
But that was back when the night was young
The other pivotal song on the album is the much-talked about “This Is Where I Get Off” in which Robertson addresses his decision to leave the Band, and the ramifications of that decision, for the first time in song:
When we made it to the top
We watched it fall
But everything you leave behind
Catches up in another time
Walking out on the boys
Was never the plan
We drifted off course
Couldn’t strike up the band
Robertson rounded up some top notch collaborators for the new album. The initial sessions for Clairvoyant took place in London with a band that included Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Pino Palladino.
After taking a break to work on the music for the Martin Scorcese film Shutter Island, Robertson resumed recording in Los Angeles. To those sessions he invited guests like Robert Randolph who adds scorching slide guitar to the album-opening “Straight Down the Line.” Tom Morello shines on a tribute to lost guitar heroes appropriately titled “Axman,” and Trent Reznor adds his unique textures to the Clapton-written instrumental “Madame X.”
Clapton co-wrote two of the album’s songs with Robertson, and plays guitar on seven songs. He also takes a vocal turn on the funky “Fear of Falling.” But it’s his guitar duel with Robertson at the end of “This Is Where I Get Off” that provides real fireworks. As I recall, Clapton and Robertson haven’t traded licks in public since their memorable standoff in The Last Waltz.
It goes without saying that How To Become Clairvoyant is expertly played, and nicely produced by Robertson and longtime collaborator Marius de Vries. Robertson’s guitar playing is first-rate throughout. When it comes to an album from a songwriter as legendary as Robertson is though, the final judgement is going to be all about the songs, and there are some very deeply felt and finely crafted songs here. How To Become Clairvoyant is Robbie Robertson’s most personal, and finest solo album.
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