Robbie Robertson and John Fogerty were two of the best rock 'n' roll songwriters of the early '70s, but in the middle of the decade they both fell mysteriously silent. Fogerty, the former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, made an excellent solo album called "Hoodoo" in 1976, then refused to release it and retired to the refuge of his Oregon farm. That same year Robertson persuaded his colleagues in the Band to leave the road with a gala concert, record and film bash called "The Last Waltz." The Band put out one anticlimactic studio album, "Islands," in 1977, and Robertson retired to Hollywood. Other than a handful of unexceptional sound track cuts, he produced no music until now.
Their silences seemed all the more strange because there were no rumors of chemical, legal or personal reasons. For those who don't possess their gifts, it was extremely frustrating to know they were out there somewhere, perfectly healthy and yet unproductive. Finally, Fogerty reemerged in 1985 with "Centerfield," and followed that up with last year's "Eye of the Zombie."
Now, 10 years after the Band's last studio album, Robertson has reemerged with his debut solo, "Robbie Robertson" (Geffen, GHS 24160). It sounds a lot more like the modern, flawed "Eye of the Zombie" than the old-fashioned, inspired "Centerfield." Robertson's skills as a wordsmith have grown rusty with disuse, but his unstifled musical curiosity has led him into some fertile collaboration with such '80s figures as U2, Peter Gabriel, the BoDeans, Scottish synth whiz Martin Page and U2 producer Daniel Lanois.
Robertson sang very rarely with the Band even though he wrote most of its songs -- that's because the Band had three much better singers. He's not a nonsinger like Tom Verlaine or Jerry Garcia, but he's no Richard Manuel, either. Robertson and his coproducer Lanois wrap his voice in lots of echo, which gives the songs an effective moodiness even if it hamstrings the melodies. When Robertson duets with Sammy Llanas of the BoDeans or Bono of U2, however, it's clear that his songs deserve a better singer than himself.
The album opens with "Fallen Angel," a tender eulogy for the Band's Manuel, who hanged himself last year. The mystical lyrics, full of afterlife imagery, don't quite cohere, but Robertson's affection, sadness and rage are communicated by the immense depth of the song's soundscape. Peter Gabriel lends his techno-tribal synthesizers and vocals; cowriter Martin Page adds echoing funeral drums; Robertson plays an unsettling bagpipe-like guitar and cries out in the futile hope of meeting his dead friend again.
Robertson collaborated with his admirers in U2 on two songs. The cryptic, mythic lyrics to "Testimony" and "Sweet Fire of Love" don't add up to much, but the interplay between Robertson and the Edge are a spectacle to behold. Both guitarists are minimalists who use pithy staccato phrases to underscore a song's tensions; as they trade phrases on the tag to "Sweet Fire of Love," they push each other to the limits of their imaginations. Even on the songs without U2, Robertson updates his trademark guitar style to resemble the Edge's droning, jabbing sound.
The first single is an anthem against the arms race called "Showdown at Big Sky." The verses sound like U2 at its most apocalyptic, but the choruses (with the BoDeans singing backup) recall the seductive sing-along feel of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" -- right down to the lyrical/musical image of village bells ringing. The Band's Garth Hudson plays the nightmarish synth on "American Roulette," a forceful but predictable song about Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and the way stardom debilitates artists as surely as any drug. "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" imitates Stan Ridgeway's film noir detective monologues -- it's more amusing than revealing.
On his best songs with the Band, Robertson's lyrics created characters and settings so specific that they sprung instantly to the listener's mind. Nothing on the new album enjoys that kind of evocative focus; the songs simply string together catchy phrases that never quite cohere into portraits. Even the best love song, "Broken Arrow," fails to match the romantic urgency of the music in its verbal imagery. Nonetheless, it's good to have Robertson and Fogerty back at work, even if it may take them a few albums to find their bearings in the '80s.
Van Morrison: 'Poetic Champions Compose' Van Morrison, who sang with the Band on the "Cahoots" and "Last Waltz" albums, has released seven studio albums since 1979. Each has showcased his preoccupation with Celtic mysticism and improvisatory vocals, and each has been gorgeously written and sung, if a bit ethereal. "Poetic Champions Compose" (Mercury 832 585-1 Q-1) is merely the latest volume in a remarkably unified body of work. Any of the seven albums could serve as a microcosm of the whole, but every one is worth owning.
In this late stage of his career, Morrison most closely resembles those spiritually inclined jazz artists -- such as Abdullah Ibrahim or Pharaoh Sanders -- who don't change much from album to album but simply expand their inspiring body of music. Morrison underscores this jazz comparison with three instrumental ballads that open, divide and close the new album. Each is a vehicle for Morrison's alto sax work, which compensates for its lack of speed and agility with its tremendous tone and feeling. Morrison has remarked that he'd like to get beyond words and use his voice as a channel for pure, wordless emotion; he seems to be doing that with his sax solos.
He's slowly moving in the same direction with his vocals. Morrison's once-evocative lyrics have now been reduced to a series of simple aphorisms -- often resembling Zen koans. He repeats them over and over again, with his shifts of inflection expressing what the words don't. Just enough of his old R&B roots poke through to give his sprawling meditations some backbone.
"Queen of the Slipstream" pays tribute to Morrison's landmark "Astral Weeks" album with both its title and its string arrangement. The traditional blues song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is suspended in an eerie state of Celtic-jazz reverie. The best on the album is "Someone Like You," a down-to-earth romantic plea that cuts through all the rumination like a Ray Charles song.