Music review: Robertson's 'Clairvoyant' lacks brilliant insights

By David Hyland, Staff Writer
Published On: May 11 2011 11:39:46 AM EDT
Updated On: May 18 2011 02:43:09 PM EDT

"Somewhere down the crazy river" that is rock 'n' roll history, Robbie Robertson has gotten old. Really old.Once, Robertson was a rare musical triple threat: guitar ace, songwriting visionary and master orchestrator of talent. Now, the 67-year-old former leader of '60s roots-rock pioneers, the Band, strikes an image as a puttering old grandpa who can scarcely play an exciting lick anymore while at the same time, boring us with long-winded songs focused on tales of increasingly banality. His new solo album, "How To Become Clairvoyant," is easily the most vanilla creation of his solo career. If we were to recast his Old South elegy "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" into this context, it would be titled "The End Of A Once Great Songwriter."Each of these turns of fortune came to pass chiefly because of Robertson's rampant ambition and lust for intellectualism beyond he and his Band-mates station as sidemen and the grueling life on the chitlin circuit. Robertson's desire for musical perfection, for a transcendence from endless one-nighters and to achieve the kind of expert storytelling that he found in books and film consistently put him and the Band at the right place at the right time.After the Band's dissolution in 1976, a burnt-out but still ambitious Robertson lost much of his taste for music-making. Instead, he buddy-ed up with Scorsese and ingratiated himself among the Hollywood elite. He assembled scores and film soundtracks for his pal while he eased into the kind of relaxed lifestyle that he likely felt he deserved from years of marauding on the road. As such, it took Robertson more than a decade to get back in the saddle and release a proper solo album.

Although his four subsequent solo releases won critical praise and nabbed awards (including a Grammy in 1998), all the theme-heavy records sold poorly and signaled that Robertson could still conceive a great concept for an album, but had trouble delivering on that promise. To compensate for this deficit, Robertson relied on another tell-tale characteristic of his solo strategy: employing all-star talent. His albums featured such A-list guests as U2, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel and producers like Daniel Lanois and Howie Z. to buttress his creations. While the songs or performances weren't especially good, like a Hollywood party, the starpower present made it all seem better.As in past, Robertson goes back to the familiar game plan and calls on old and new faces to round out the cast. He enlists '60s rock cohorts like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood as well as more contemporary contributors like pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor. Weirdly, except for Clapton's meek vocals and fat guitar lines, the presence of the other guests is largely unidentifiable and adds little noticeable value to these cuts.More disturbing is how often Robertson comes across like a storyteller who has lost the plot. His baritone sing-speaking style functions well as a narrator, but these are gentle bedtime stories that he's telling. Robertson stuffs these precision-less songs with lyrical platitudes so as to render them harmless. When an opportunity arrives to become illustrative or to offer wisdom, Robertson resorts to cliches. The fact that these tracks are built off anecdotes from his life make it all the more puzzling. There's a sense that he's finally become bereft of ideas.<ibs_img src="/2011/0406/27448045.jpg" width="170" height="170" align="right" alt="" id="27448045" type="photo" border="0" hspace="10" vspace="5" ></ibs_img>Equally disconcerting is Robertson's underwhelming guitar playing throughout "Clairvoyant." Years of trading licks with country, blues and rockabilly guitarists like Roy Buchanan had sharpened Robertson's six-string skills to fearsome levels. Such was his reputation in the '60s and '70s that Robertson could intimidate other axe-slingers like Clapton or Mike Bloomfield with his white-hot licks and understated delivery. Now, perhaps all those years without live performing has resulted in atrophy, leaving Robertson will little of the old command that he once possessed. His pinched-note style now never slowly explodes as it did in the old days. He just sounds like he's waiting around for lightning to strike. When he's mixing it up with modern-day players like Randolph or Morello on select tracks (including the boring blues-stroll "Axman," in which Robertson presides over a ceremony honoring the guitar-hero cult), the new guys are oddly restrained as if they're playing gently with the old veteran.Back in the Band days, Robertson got credit for writing from a perspective beyond his own experiences. On "When You Awake," he wrote about a young boy ready to receive some wisdom from his cherished elders: "Sat upon my grandpa's knee/And what do you think he said to me?" On "Rockin' Chair" he was convincing as an old sea dog longing for the easy life. As such, listeners might expect age and experience would agree with Robertson. It doesn't. "Clairvoyant" is the clearest indication yet that Robertson isn't a musician anymore. He's a legend now. Let him kick back and relax.

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