The unmistakable clean, sharp cutting guitar tone, with just a little hair on it. Enough to catch. Hook. The sound of Robbie Robertson’s new album, “How to Become Clairvoyant.”
A very cryptic title, that one. Honestly, I didn’t care for it when I first heard of it. It sounded just a little…corny. The title song, it turns out, is stone brilliant, and you don’t get to it until the next-to-last song. Robertson doesn’t give it up just like that. Like a good writer, he knows to make you wait.
The last song is a tribute to Django Reinhardt, who, along with Robert Johnson, seems to vie for the ultimate guitarist’s guitarist (even Les Paul bowed to him). This song bears close listening, particularly the end. And no, I’m not telling why.
I’ve liked all of Robertson’s post-Band albums, some more than others, as with all artists. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and “Skinwalker” are among Robertson’s best songs–a very high bar when you consider what he’s written.
This album, though, reflects a mature artist both living in the present and looking back with clear eyes. He never was The Band’s strongest singer–then again, the other guys were some of the best singers in popular music–but he has his own, distinctive tone and phrasing, and here he’s comfortable with what he can and can’t do, using his strenghts. Eric Clapton plays on about half the tracks (and co-wrote a couple, plus one instrumental’s all his writing), and Robertson seems to bring out the best in Clapton, who’s an artist who seems to thrive when collaborating.
A couple songs slip into cliches lyrically, but Robertson, like Bob Dylan, seems keenly aware of those cliches, and uses them as tools rather than crutches. There are enough songs full of original writing that there’s no fear Robertson’s slacking. Rather, he’s having fun. If you take those songs that way, you will too.
Besides the title cut, some of the killers here are “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “Won’t Be Back,” and, especially, “This is Where I Get Off.” The latter reflects the end of The Band, which, over the years, has prompted some resentments toward Robertson, particularly in Levon Helm’s very good autobiography.
It’s tough when you separate from an artistic collaborators. Close artistic partners usually have to become friends just to survive together, much less accomplish anything. You spend substantial time with them, sometimes under great pressure, and you learn their strengths and weaknesses, which you rely on or compensate for (as they do with you), resulting in a unique, complex affection. You can hear that tenderness–and pain through severance–in Robertson’s vocal. I think it’s fair to assume he misses what The Band could do as much as his listeners, but he knows it belongs to the past, especially as Richard Manuel and Rick Danko have passed on.
There’s a hint, though, of Manuel’s ghost in “This is Where I Get Off.” The album’s strong backup singers, particularly on that cut, echo The Band’s great harmonies without imitating them, including a haunting falsetto counterpoint to Robertson that recalls Manuel’s gorgeous voice, which could pull off a falsetto as well as the best Motown singers. It doesn’t come in until that song’s powerful, final chorus, and Robertson’s too careful and smart an artist for it to be coincidence. It’s heard but briefly, leaving Robertson to finish the song alone.
As it should be.