Review Summary: Ranked #77 on Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Albums Of The Eighties".
When The Band called it quits in 1976 after making some of the most influential rock n roll of the previous twenty years, the big question was of course "what's next"? Nearly twelve years later chief songwriter and leader of "The Band" Robbie Robertson would call on producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois to help him answer that question, and together they would make an album as gorgeous and remarkable as any Robertson's previous band had ever produced. Just one problem. Robbie was a man without The Band. So Danny set out to get him one or two or three. And the results are a near classic stunner of an album that is both unexpected and true to everything Robertson had ever been. Calling not on Robertson's old friends such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, etc...to get the job done, visionary producer Lanois called instead on some of his own (U2, recent roots rock hot shots The BoDeans, Peter Gabriel, Lone Justice songbird Maria McKee, Terry Bozzio,) and along with himself, no less then four bass players, two drummers, and two drum "programmers", managed to bring the entire project together with style and grace.
The first part of this record is pure perfection. If these were the days it was recorded in (1986 with a January 1987 release date) this would be side one. At a time when you could pack a little masterpiece onto one side of an album, "side one" of Robbie Robertson is a little masterpiece. From the opening Peter Gabriel like "Fallen Angel" where it's hard to determine where Rob begins and Peter ends as they sing of regret and hope for Robertson's dead by overdose former Band mate Richard Manuel, to the closing U2 driven "Sweet Fire Of Love", its a gem. More one song then four, the first part of this album is uniform in a way most rock n roll albums can only hope to be. With connected themes such as the apocalyptic vision that is the majestic and rootsy "Showdown At Big Sky " with its loud ringing guitars and BoDeans lead harmonies, to the aforementioned U2 tribal stomp that finds Robbie and Bono in a tug of war on vocals, this is cinematic music making at its best. Robertson's lyrics are of the "let the bells ring out", "hoping that you were the healing inside me", "cast a shadow up against the sun" sort. And his sharp way with a melody and tune as well as Lanois's outstanding textured production make this work flow seamlessly until it feels as one. Something moving through the room. Seeping into your soul. Driving into your psyche. Yeah....
And while the second half of the record doesn't quite measure up to the first you can't fault what is good about it. "Somewhere Down The Crazy River" finds Robertson taking us on a niorish trip through modern jazz stylings with his smoky deep tenor leading the way, and "Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight" is just as well with Sammy And Kurt Bodean helping the gruff voiced Robertson out with strong vocal support. And closing the album on a real high note the dense swampy funk of "Testimony" finds Stax style horns out front of a U2 led gospel smoker that features everyone joining in as Robertson passionately sings lines such as "bear witness I'm wailing like the wind" and proclaiming of spiritual redemption "you've got nothing to lose but your chains"!
All great stuff. The problem is in the middle of all this goodness Robertson and Lanios inexplicably decided to include two fairly ordinary hard rock tunes that while given the Lanois treatment of blunting the rough edges and adding some interesting atmosphere, also exposes Robbie as a very limited vocalist. Never a singer really, Robertson is best when raspily shouting, raspily singing, "talk singing", or joined in healthy doses by the formidable vocal crew assembled for this album. Out front leading these two rockers (American Roulette and Hells Half Acre, respectively) Robbie sings these cautionary tales of doomed celebrity and war time turmoil squarely from the gut. Which is good. But not much else is and the tunes themselves lack the lyrical, musical, and thematic vision of the rest of this work. They aren't bad. They just don't measure up and are ill fitting to the set. Had they opted instead to include a couple of more rock oriented tracks like Showdown At Big Sky, Sweet Fire Of Love, and the inspiring Testimony, this would be a perfect album and could be labeled a true classic. Missed opportunity? Maybe. But near classic is most likely close enough. Hit the skip button and you'll never know the difference.
Robbie would follow this release in '91 with a lesser effort (couldn't really avoid that), turn to acting and film scoring as he had done post Band, and explore his Native American roots further in a couple of somewhat experimental albums in the mid and late '90's. Somewhat reclusive, media shy, and seemingly in no hurry to duplicate past successes or failures, we can only hope this enigmatic artist might emerge once more bearing gifts as rewarding, rich, and downright beautiful as this special recording offerd the music world nearly twenty years ago. Eleven years coming and sounding like every moment was made to count, Robbie Robertson's debut album will cut into your mind, weave its way through your soul, and take you on a journey through the heart of one of rocks all time great songwriters and bandleaders. This is the kind of music that can change you. The kind of album that if it were flesh and blood could move mountains, its strength and vision unyielding and forceful. Robbie may never cut another album again. Never record or write another song. Doesn't matter. Art like this lives forever in the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of everyone it touches with its graceful spirituality, message of faith and hope, and musically rich soundscapes. If this was Robbie's artistic and creative peak after he left The Band, so be it. Sometimes the first shot is the best shot, as the saying goes. And when it's a shot this good not much else is really needed.