On his fifth proper solo album, Robertson puts a lot of effort into trying to sound effortless.
It took 11 years for Robbie Robertson to make his mark as a solo artist after the Band disbanded. "I wasn't so sure I had something to say," was his excuse. Was he genuinely modest or just underselling himself to be on the safe side? The 13-year wait for his fifth solo album, if anything, definitely puts him on the fussy side of the creative process these days. How to Become Clairvoyant consequently sounds like an album that's over ten years in the making; meticulous, worried, scripted and a little diluted. Not adjectives associated with the Band, I know. But that was a long time ago.
How to Become Clairvoyant is a collaborative effort, and the main collaborator here is Eric Clapton. Clapton co-writes two songs, has sole writing credit for one song, plays guitar on seven of them, and has a prominent vocal part on one of those. So if listening to old "Slowhand" is your idea of musical torture, you should bolt the other way right now. And, of course, if Eric is in the room, Steve Winwood and his organ can't be far. Robert Randolph lends pedal steel expertise while Angela McCluskey and Dana Glover give vocal shading. Some less orthodox guests include Tom Morello and Trent Reznor, their contributions yielding mixed results. Some songs manage to take off while others drop like rocks, so it's hard to properly assign praise or blame among all of these names. But a good album is a good album, and a lousy album is a lousy album. As far as How to Become Clairvoyant goes, let's just say it won't keep you up at night.
Since the man is in his late '60s, it's only natural for him to mix the autobiographical with the spiritual. He keeps picking at religious themes in his songs, not unlike the Bunuel-inspired Band songs of old. "Inside of the belly of the whale" is the metaphor of choice for the life of excess, though the summer of love was more pure with "tent show evangelists and Luke the Drifter". These same travels go down cynical paths when Robertson laments "Sign reads God bless America guns and ammo / I'm not sure that's what He means / Sign reads repent the end is near / I'm not sure that's what we need". A female protagonist feels spiritually overwhelmed in the title track by trying to weigh the hard facts of "Benedictine sister to Isis and the black Madonna / Mistress of magic, goddess of the Nile". And most glaring of all are cautionary musical advices from old blues men and gospel singers on the leadoff "Straight Down the Line": "I do not play no rock and roll / I would not be moved to sell my soul". But where The Band could drive this stuff home with a hard-edged gospel/flower rock collision in swampland, Americana, a majority of How to Become Clairvoyant just kind of sounds like Robert Cray with a starched collar. Just like his photo on the cover, looking like he's avoiding the paparazzi (I must remain incognito!), Robertson's harsh whisper makes it sound like he's going out of his way to sound easy-going.
Worthy experiments are found for sure. Whether these gambles deserve to become more than just that is up to the listener. For instance, "She's Not Mine", the one about the one-that-got-away, shakes around more arena bravado than anyone would have suspected Robertson of having. The ambient bed for the song's foundation sounds more like the work of the Edge or Will Sergeant than Clapton. The following track, instrumental "Madame X", takes this idea even further, stretching the space between sounds and notes to distances that most listeners are unfamiliar with anymore. Reznor is credited for "Additional Textures." What these textures are, it's too abstract to say. But it's guaranteed that you will not be thinking of Nine Inch Nails while listening to this song, unless this review bogs you down with name-association. The following number, a tribute to a mysterious guitarist, is forgettable through and through. Tom Morello's avant-approach to his instrument normally would be a good enough excuse for the song's existence, but his noises feel too mannered and symmetrical to make this four-plus-minute tune worth checking out for fans of Rage/Audioslave.
With everything else, better or worse, there is formula at play. "Fear of Falling" sounds so much like Clapton's "Change the World" that you may find yourself inexplicably wanting to watch Friends while cracking a Monica Lewinsky joke as you pop open a Zima (in case you were wondering, this is the aforementioned song where Clapton and Robertson trade verses). "When The Night Was Young" is probably the most Bandesque the album becomes, taking an R&B shuffle at a leisurely pace while reminiscing about '60s optimism, though it’s surprisingly not corny:
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
How to Become Clairvoyant ends with another instrumental, "Tango for Django", though it sounds like neither a tango nor anything Mr. Reinhardt would have cared about. When pop musicians reach Robertsonss age bracket, it's tempting to say that they have lost their touch, that they no longer understand their place like they did in their heyday, or that they just don't know what they're doing anymore. But there is something redeeming about said aging musician not really caring about trends. At times, Robertson can sound fresh and current while, other times, he can sound predictably dated. But in his own eyes, he has probably reached a point of clairvoyance that is good enough to not tarnish his long legacy.