Album Review

Robbie Robertson "How To Become Clairvoyant"

Eamon Murphy
In anyone’s book, 13 years is a long time to wait for follow up an album, and that time has afforded Robbie Robertson plenty of opportunity for reassessment of his musical direction.

1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy was a major musical departure for Robertson. More innovative musicians have tried and failed to combine electronic beats and textures with rock n’ roll, and Robertson’s decision to incorporate Native American chants was a daring move that resulted in a well received record that has stood the test of time well.

How to Become Clairvoyant is at least equally as big a step back in the direction of his roots. If his last two releases (the aforementioned Contact, and 1994’s Music for the Native Americans) were about celebrating and exploring his ancestry, Robertson’s latest album sees him re-tackling his rock n’ roll origins. An enviable line-up of “session musicians” (Pino Palladino, Ian Thomas and Steve Winwood among the least well known of them) gives this more the appearance of a 60s/70s supergroup album than a solo effort, and Robertson has been open about the fact that the album was originally conceived as a collaboration with no less than Eric Clapton.

Old Slowhand’s mark is all over this record, his vocals instantly recognisable on ‘Fear of Falling’, his slick solos and slide guitar as apparent throughout the album as the polished bass lines provided by Palladino. The presence of these (and other) illustrious musicians contributes in no small way to making the album seem more like an effort from a music legend’s heyday than a late in the career solo album.

And yet in spite of this, How to Become Clairvoyant retains a remarkable feeling of modernity. Despite its nod to Robertson’s past, it’s at times far removed musically from the down-home blues and country flavour of his Band heyday. Paradoxically, he largely declines to tackle modern themes and issues, and so eschews the risk of appearing as a musical anachronism trying to seem relevant in an era four decades on from the one in which he first found acclaim. Instead, he is content to deal with the past, writing (amongst other themes) about the break-up of The Band, and the friends lost in the interim; issues about which he has admitted he only now feels capable of writing. It makes for a timeless feeling for the listener.

Refreshingly, Robertson seems quite at ease with himself, content to do simply what he and his impressive team of musicians do best, and feeling under no obligation to experiment for experimentation’s sake. His trademark guitar style, his slick licks and stringbends, is more in evidence here than on any previous solo release, and backed up by a band of a quality comparable to any he’s had throughout his career.

How to Become Clairvoyant may have too many unremarkable tracks to be considered for greatness. Still, there’s enough quality evident to make another 13 year hiatus wholly undesirable.