Tentative Review #50

Robbie Robertson
Robbie Robertson

(released 1988)

1. Fallen Angel****
2. Showdown At Big Sky****1/2
3. Broken Arrow***1/2
4. Sweet Fire Of Love***1/2
5. American Roulette****
6. Somewhere Down The Crazy River***1/2
7. Hell's Half Acre***1/2
8. Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight***1/2
9. Testimony****



All tracks by Robbie Robertson except "Fallen Angel" and "Hell's Half Acre" by Martin Page and Robbie Robertson.


Robbie Robertson's legacy has undergone some unusual shifts in recent years, both for better and for worse. On the positive side, his involvement in the Requiem For The Native Americans project consolidated his role as a relevant artist/songwriter at a time when his career was reaching a bit of a lull. On the negative side, ongoing legal disputes with his former partners in The Band have suggested that his dealings with Levon Helm and others were not always of a proper nature; if all of Helm's claims are to be believed (which is by no means certain, of course) the image of Robertson which emerges is extremely unflattering.

None of this, however, is necessarily relevant in judging Robbie Robertson, the first album released by the artist after the breakup of The Band in 1976, and the album that briefly elevated him to "critical darling" status in North America. Like most other individuals to whom this status is accorded (ie. Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, etc.), the music which he produced via this project was of a highly intelligent nature, featuring good songwriting and excellent production. Although the quick granting of this status may have had the adverse effect of undermining his future projects (prior to "Requiem"), it was certainly appropriate for this particular release.

Certainly, one of the most immediately obvious aspects of this release is fact that it features a strong presence from assorted outside artists: both U2 and Peter Gabriel's band add substantial contributions to the album. Robertson probably knew what he was doing in surrounding himself with such talent; his own voice is of a rather raspy shade, and it isn't likely that the project would have had as strong of an impact had he recorded it in a "low-key" manner (though the matter of capitalizing on U2's popularity can't be ignored either ... which is not to say, of course, that this is necessarily a bad thing).

"Fallen Angel" commences the album in the manner of a Peter Gabriel track, with `tribal' drumming (probably from Katche), and a guitar/production effect very similar to that which Gabriel later used on "Come Talk To Me". This track was dedicated to Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986, and it seems an appropriate tribute; with Gabriel handling the harmonic vocals, Robertson's strangled tones seem extremely appropriate. This is a strangely affecting song at its best moments.

Even better is "Showdown At Big Sky", a track concerned an impending apocalypse (of form uncertain). For my own part, I can recall being extremely impressed upon first hearing the "valley of tears" section of this song in 1988; the half-chanted vocals add considerably to the quasi-religious nature of the work. The opening thematic statement on different guitars is a nice touch, as is the guitar solo at the end. Easily the high point of the album.

"Broken Arrow" (later covered to much success and banality by Rod Stewart) is not a highlight of the album, but still qualifies as somewhat of a modest success. The electric percussion beginning the track is a nice touch, and the multi-tracked vocals utilize Robertson's voice fairly well. The primary flaw of this track is that is seems like too much of a typical ballad on occasion, despite the "honesty" of Robertson's position.

"Sweet Fire Of Love" is the most obviously U2-derived track on the album, featuring Bono sharing lead vocals and, presumably, the entire band contributing to the musical bed. This track is not an overwhelming success either; it works reasonably well for what it is, but it becomes mired a bit too heavily in standard blues-rock territory to really take off. At the end of the track, a decent guitar line suddenly developed, thereby giving the song a slightly higher rating.

The lyrics of "American Roulette" deal with the rather hackneyed them of Elvis Presley's rise to power, which is a bit of shame given the fact that the music is actually of a rather high quality. The guitar soloing throughout the work is quite good, as is the instrumental outro; moreover, the "another scandal/she burns a candle" line could work extremely well as an indictment of ritualized responses to various troubles (though that may not be what RR had in mind). It could have been better, but there isn't terribly much to complain about as the track currently stands.

Some individuals have listed "Somewhere Down The Crazy River" as one of the better tracks on this album. I must confess that I am somewhat befuddled by this assessment. The song, to be sure, has some very strong qualities: the stark drum line is nothing short of incredible, and the guitar, bass, and keyboards are all given a chance to shine as well. The chorus is handled quite well by all involved. The problem, however, would be the rather tacky "western romance" lyrics that Robertson sees fit to develop throughout the track; the arrangement of the song, moreover, focuses too intensely on these moments for their significance to be downplayed in a critical assessment. This may be the ultimate "flawed gem" of the album.

"Hell's Half-Acre" seems to be another U2-derived number, with lyrics focusing on Vietnam war in a rather half-developed manner. The music is fairly good; with a bit more time spent in composition (and a less hackneyed theme) this could have amounted to something truly significant.

"Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight" is perhaps as close to an Eric Clapton number as this album gets (and, thankfully, is closer to the 1987 revision of "After Midnight" than to "Tears In Heaven"). This is a fairly good narrative track, with lyrics involving lost love and general desperation; the musical performance is fairly good as well. This track is successful within its intentions.

And, finally, the album concludes with "Testimony", and anthemic track which seems to be somewhat based on First Nations matters (the half-Native American Robertson's references to "the half-breed" make the general link fairly obvious). With more strangled vocals, a good horn section, and a rather catchy beat, this is a fairly good way to end the album.

This is not, of course, a progressive album, and should not by purchased as a means of fulfilling a progressive impulse. It is, however, a decent album by its own standards; moreover, Gabriel completists might have an interest in attaining this work for his performance. Generally recommended, though not specifically for the progressive audience.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 22 September 1997)

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