Robbie Robertson was once asked why he waited 11 years after the breakup of the Band to release a solo project, and he replied, "I wasn't so sure I had something to say." One can hear a bit of this thinking in Robertson's self-titled solo debut; it's obvious that he didn't care to revisit the country- and blues-flavored roots rock that had been his bread and butter with the Band, and at the same time Robertson seemed determined to make an album that had something important to say, and could stand alongside his legendary earlier work. Looking for a moody and atmospheric sound, Robertson teamed up with producer Daniel Lanois, who had previously worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel, two artists whose work obviously influenced Robertson's musical thinking while he was making the album (they both appear on the album as well). As a result, Robbie Robertson is an album that represents both a clear break from his past, and an ambitious attempt to take his fascination with American culture and music in a new and contemporary direction. It's highly ambitious stuff, and the album's ambitions sometimes prove to be its Achilles' heel. Robertson's collaboration with U2, "Sweet Fire of Love," sounds like a rather unremarkable outtake from The Joshua Tree, with the group's aural bombast subsuming the ostensive leader of the session, while "Fallen Angel," "American Roulette," and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" find Robertson exploring the same iconography of the Band's best work, but without the same grace or subtle wit. And it doesn't take long to realize why Robbie only took two lead vocals during his tenure with the Band; his dry, reedy voice isn't bad, but it lacks the force and authority to communicate the big themes Robertson wants to bring across. Despite all this, Robbie Robertson does have its share of pearly moments, especially on the bitter "Hell's Half Acre," "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight," and "Broken Arrow" (a performance more subtle and effective than Rod Stewart's better-known cover). Robbie Robertson isn't the masterpiece its creator was obviously striving towards, but it's an intelligent and often compelling set from an inarguably important artist, and it comes a good bit closer to capturing what made the Band's work so memorable than the latter-day efforts from Levon Helm and company.
Robbie Robertson Review
by Mark Deming