A while ago, I wrote about how I have trouble relating to a lot of The Band’s material. I like The Last Waltz well enough, the energy and the musicianship, but as far as the actual songs, I could never quite connect with tale after tale of down-and-out hillbillies. So when I approached Robbie Robertson’s first solo album in 1987, it wasn’t as a fan of his earlier work — it was as a fan of Peter Gabriel, U2, and BoDeans. Of the nine songs on this album, fully six of them feature one of those three artists, seven if you count instrumental as well as vocal contributions.
This, then, is the story of a producer. Daniel Lanois created some of the defining sounds of the 1980s by producing two of its most artistically and commercially successful albums: Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree. He’d produce albums for U2 and Gabriel beforehand and afterwards, but those two were the peak, both for him and for the artists. His sonic landscape was huge, creating epic cathedrals of music with echoing bass and drums pushed way up in the mix, punctuated by searing guitars and sometimes bright horns as well.
Lanois produced two albums in 1987. One was The Joshua Tree, and the other was Robbie Robertson. He’d produced So the year before, and in fact a core of musicians from that album — Tony Levin on bass and Manu Katché on drums, as well as Lanois himself on various instruments and vocals — provide Robertson’s accompaniment here. Lanois’s signature sounds are all over this album, as are his signature artists, along with BoDeans, whom he never produced but who were the opening act on U2’s Joshua Tree tour.
The album opens with “Fallen Angel”, featuring a haunting vocal by Gabriel, and a keyboard part too. It’s a tribute to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel, who had hanged himself in 1986. The song starts soft, building in power. Robertson’s vocal comes in wordlessly, hums that transition into high wails of anguish, slowly forming lyrics: “Are you out there? / Can you hear me? / Can you see me in the dark?” Once the verse begins, it’s clear that Robertson is not speaking in character, and that he’s writing far away from the Band mode. It’s a song of loss, with Robertson’s earthy tone complemented perfectly by multiple layers of Peter Gabriel’s ethereal voice intoning over and over, “Fallen angel… if my eyes can see…” It’s a fitting farewell to a lost soul who “felt too much.”
The grand mode continues in both of Robertson’s songs with U2. “Sweet Fire Of Love” was in fact co-written with the group, and is performed more or less as a duet with them. If it made the charts today, it’d probably be billed as “Robbie Robertson featuring U2”, or maybe just “Robbie Robertson and U2.” “Testimony,” too, features the entire band and a horn section to boot. In fact, now that I think about it, these two songs not only give us a whole new side of Robertson, they also document U2’s transition from its epic Joshua Tree mode to the more soul-oriented approach of Rattle & Hum. “Sweet Fire” sees them in spiritual/romantic fever, similar to “Where The Streets Have No Name” or “In God’s Country,” whereas the bluesier sound of “Testimony” hearkens forward to songs like “Angel Of Harlem” and “When Love Comes To Town.”
Then there are the BoDeans. Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas have an electrifying vocal blend, and Lanois puts it to excellent use in the glorious “Showdown At Big Sky,” an impressionistic song about escalating war. Robertson sets the scene in the verse, but the chorus belongs to Kurt and Sammy, who take it to the skies musically, similar to the effect that Gabriel has in “Fallen Angel.” “American Roulette” doesn’t feature them quite so prominently, but once again they lend that special sound to the chorus, specifically the title. Robertson’s lyrics paint abstract portraits of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, but when it’s time to make his point, it’s BoDeans who do the underlining.
“Somewhere Down The Crazy River” is a little different. Rather than a CinemaScope war or tragedy, “Crazy River” is more like a southern noir. Robertson speaks the verses rather than singing them, making the whole thing feel like an unsettling session with a grizzled old storyteller, who may himself be a little crazy. He sings the chorus, and that’s where Sam Llanas comes in. Llanas has a raspy vocal tone, and the way he matches with Neumann’s much smoother voice is the key to what makes the BoDeans’ harmonies special, somewhat analogous to Ray and Saliers (respectively) of the Indigo Girls. But Llanas by himself is pure grit, and he turns that dial up to 11 as he echoes the title behind the chorus. Where the other guest spots provide a counterpoint to Robertson’s tone, Llanas in this one takes that tone even further in the direction it was already going.
The final guest star song is “Broken Arrow”, to which Peter Gabriel contributes keyboards and drum programming. Because the contribution is instrumental, it feels far more like a pure Robertson song, and in fact is probably the best known song on the album, thanks to Rod Stewart’s cover making the top 20 in 1991. It’s a sweet song, with some lovely lines: “Do you feel what I feel? / Can we make that so it’s part of the deal? / I’ve gotta hold you in these arms of steel / Lay your heart on the line / I want to breathe when you breathe.”
Probably my favorite song from this assignment, though, is one with no guest stars at all: “Hell’s Half-Acre.” Search Google for this term and you’ll find a strange geological formation in Wyoming, as well as an obscure 1954 noir film whose title refers to a Honolulu slum district. Read the lyrics of this song, though, and I think you’ll agree it’s pretty clear that the reference here is to Vietnam.
The lyrics tell the story of a young Native American man from the Black Hills of South Dakota, drafted to fight a “rumble in the jungle.” Robertson’s melody and Lanois’s arrangement perfectly convey the danger and intensity of his situation, and the story they tell has no happy ending — “She said, you’ve changed, you’re not the same / Clouds of napalm and the opium / The damage was already done.” Robertson’s vocal is as fierce as he gets, and the result is devastating. For all the support he gets on this album, “Hell’s Half Acre” shows that Robbie Robertson was plenty strong standing on his own.