Album Review: Robbie Robertson's 'How To Become Clairvoyant'
Robbie Robertson is Canadian, but he’s always worn his love of the Delta and the blues music of the south so overtly (especially on 1991’s “Storyville) that it feels like he should be from somewhere like New Orleans. There’s a sultriness to his music that seems as if it can only be cultivated in the presence of great humidity and body heat.
His fifth solo album, “How To Become Clairvoyant,” out Tuesday (April 5) is no different. The title track recalls the heavy-lidded sensuality of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” from his 1987 self-titled solo debut with its imagery so strong you can conjure up the femme fatale he describes.
Like Bob Dylan, Robertson’s one of those artists who talks— or snarls— as much as he sings, but it’s always in a low-slung, sexy way that makes you want to lean in closer to hear what he’s saying. A bit of mystery hangs around the edges of his songs.
He remains a spare wordsmith, needing only a few choice phrases to express his point and create a mood, even when the commentary is as deliciously elliptical as “And I also enjoy levitation” at the end of the title track.
The genesis of the album, his first since 1998’s “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy,” came from Robertson and long time friend Eric Clapton noodling around. They put the work aside, only for Robertson to rediscover it a few years later. In addition to Clapton, who appears on seven songs here, Robertson is joined by Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, Robert Randolph, the Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Steve Winwood, among others. Unlike some efforts where the guests overtake the album, they never crowd Robertson or outshine him except for those songs when he willingly cedes the spotlight, such as on “Fear of Falling,” where Robertson shares vocals with Clapton or on the Clapton-penned instrumental “Madame X,” on which Reznor is credited with “additional textures.”
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Robertson is in a reflective, if not downright nostalgic, mood on many of the tunes, including swampy first single, “He Don’t Live Here Anymore,” about his longtime friendship with director Martin Scorsese. The former housemates lived it up so notoriously and were so good at being bad, they finally had to part ways to save each other from themselves and their harmful habits.
In “This is Where I Get Off,” he addresses for the first time in song his departure from The Band. He left the group he co-founded following 1976’s “The Last Waltz.”
“The Right Mistake,” with seductively serpentine backing vocals from Angela McCluskey and snaky organ lines from Winwood, is one of those songs that leaves you nodding your head in agreement. We’ve all gone into the dragon’s den willingly without a second thought. Or as Steely Dan said it brilliantly on “Dirty Work,” “I foresee terrible trouble and yet I stay here just the same.”
For fans of Robertson’s guitar work, there’s plenty here to exalt over: in addition to “Madame X,” he and Morello work up a sweat on “Axman.”
Robertson doesn’t break any new ground here, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s his best solo album since his first one 24 years ago and as the temperature starts to rise as we head inch from spring to summer, his provocatively languid tunes provide the perfect accompaniment.