"Impeccable, clear and soulful in equal measure": Robbie Robertson - Robbie Robertson album review

Robbie Robertson hooked up with producer Daniel Lanois for his debut solo album, conjuring up a fashionably atmospheric twist to his ongoing fascination with American culture

Robbie Robertson: Robbie Robertson album art
(Image: © Geffen)

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Robbie Robertson: Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson: Robbie Robertson album art

(Image credit: Geffen)

Fallen Angel
Showdown at Big Sky
Broken Arrow
Sweet Fire of Love
American Roulette
Somewhere Down the Crazy River
Hell's Half Acre
Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight

After The Band broke up, Robbie Robertson produced the music for The Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese’s films Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy and The Colour Of Money, but didn’t get around to releasing his first solo album until 1987. 

Robertson hooked up with producer Daniel Lanois, then basking in the success of Peter Gabriel and U2 albums. Robertson’s self-titled disc, which took years to complete (the album was started in 1984) and cost Geffen a small fortune, brought a fashionably atmospheric twist to his ongoing fascination with American culture. 

The album features appearances from Robertson's former The Band colleagues Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, while U2 appeared on Sweet Fire Of Love – based on an original, 22-minute improvisation – and Gabriel sang on Fallen Angel and added instrumental parts to Broken Arrow.

“It was a good time to do something," said Robertson. "Produce a movie, act in a movie, make a record, something. I didn’t want to one day just find that I was in a desperate situation. I mean, I didn’t decide to make a record because I needed money. It was time to make a record, but it was time to make some money as well.”

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Other albums released in October 1987

  • Pleasures of the Flesh - Exodus
  • Tunnel of Love - Bruce Springsteen
  • Perfect Timing - McAuley Schenker Group
  • Free as a Bird - Supertramp
  • Masque - Manfred Mann's Earth Band
  • Kick - INXS
  • Abigail - King Diamond
  • Surfing With The Alien - Joe Satriani
  • Got Any Gum? - Joe Walsh
  • Schizophrenia - Sepultura
  • Blues for Salvador - Carlos Santana
  • Screaming Life - Soundgarden
  • Unchain My Heart - Joe Cocker


What they said...

"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." (Sputnik Music)

"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." (AllMusic)

"Once established as an icon of quality, he always took himself too seriously, and age has neither mellowed him nor wised him up. So now, casting about for a contemporary context, he hooks up with the two most sententious young artists of quality on the charts. Took some guts for such an unrepentant Americana-monger to risk Anglophobe wrath, but unfortunately, the mesh didn't take." (Robert Christgau)


What you said...

Mike Canoe: Robbie Robertson's 1987 self-titled solo debut album continues to resonate with me more than any of his work in The Band, a band that I've tried unsuccessfully to get into several times.

A lot of my love for the album has little to do with Robbie Robertson. You could not have picked a hotter producer in 1987 than Daniel Lanois. His ethereal soundscapes entranced me a lot more than the roots rock The Band was known for. Lanois' previous two production credits were the incredibly successful album So by Peter Gabriel and the staggeringly successful U2 album, The Joshua Tree. So it didn't hurt that the 1987 version of me was a huge fan of Peter Gabriel and U2 and that both appeared on the album.

But a lot of my love for the album has everything to do with Robbie Robertson, especially with successive listens over the years. His world weary voice can still give me goosebumps on songs like elegiac opener Fallen Angel and the Rod Stewart hit in waiting, Broken Arrow.

Then there are the lyrics, both cinematic and enigmatic, allowing listeners to interpret the stories as they will. Favourites include "Say a prayer for the lost generation who spin the wheel out of desperation" from American Roulette and "Can't predict the future, can't forget the past. Feels like any moment could be the last" from Showdown at Big Sky" And then there's Somewhere Down the Crazy River, a perfect little noir film in under five minutes.

Strangely, as is often the case, I never really pursued his albums after this one (Say it with me: Too much music, too little time) but this album sits in good company in my collection with similarly minded albums by elder musical statesmen, I'm Your Man by Leonard Cohen and Chris Rea's God's Great Banana Skin.

John Davidson: I knew nothing of this album before it appeared on the list suggested by Mike Canoe. If you had asked me if I like Robbie Robertson's music I would have said 'not really'. I knew of him as a musical icon without ever really liking any of his music. His work with Dylan was on the albums I don't really know or care for and The Last Waltz celebrated the end of a musical era that i hadn't connected with.

His self titled solo album was therefore a revelation. On first listen I was blown away. The opening song could easily have been a bonus track from Peter Gabriel's magnificent quirky pop rock masterpiece So. Sweet Fire of Love could have been lifted from the Joshua Tree (another peak of 80s pop rock). Somewhere Down By The Riverside has the effortless cool of a half spoken Tom Waits song .

The production throughout is impeccable, clear and soulful in equal measure. The lyrics are interesting and without being "rawk", the guitar work is generally fantastic.

On subsequent listens it sounds like an 80s album, but not in a bad way. It largely avoids the cliches of drum machine and handclap and isn't super-slick (Like Glenn Frey's Smugglers Blues or Don Henley's Boys of Summer for example). Overall a great pick and one that I will add to my rotation.

Greg Post: Robbie Robertson nailed it with this album. I still listen to this from time to time, and every time I do it reminds me of how great this album really is. Eight out of nine songs are superb. 9 out of 10 easily.

Jeff Belval: I'd never heard of Robbie Robertson before this week's selection. I like this album instrumentally. The album has a vibe going for it but none of it really clicks with me. 

Roland Bearne: I’m going to start with a confession; When I was, I think 13, my school organised a screening of The Last Waltz. I was told that these guys had backed Dylan, and having been weaned on BD, I thought this might be good. 

I have rarely been so bored! I felt like I was witnessing some exclusive get together of a club of which I was not a member nor would ever be. So I let Robbie Robertson pass me by. Now, it wasn’t all just 80s Rawk in my collection, very fond indeed of the likes of John Mellencamp and Steve Earle, but I remained “wary” for some reason of Mr Robertson. 

It was with some trepidation therefore that I started my first listen and immediately my inner early teen thought, "oh gawd, this is going to be the kind of thing that people listen to with blissful smiles while shushing you at the bar if you dare to have a conversation!" But track after track arrived and my mid(-ish) fifties ears took over. 

Ooh, this is nice, ooh, a bit rocky, ooh, nice lyric, a bit Tom Waits, ooh lovely “moaning railroad” harmonica there etc etc. I am far from qualified to give an in-depth analysis here but suffice it say my first exposure to this album after a couple of plays is, I need this on vinyl as I think there’s a lot of listening here and I like it! 

I foresee a glass (or three) of red, the lyric sheet and some very pleasant hours (It’s also the sort of thing I could put on and my lovely Mrs won’t yell at me!). 

Mark Herrington: Robbie Robertson's album is a good set of tracks overall. Some great guest vocalists. I particularly liked the up beat tracks like Sweet Fire Of Love, American Roulette and Testimony.

The running order doesn’t seem quite right to me. Starting the album with a slow track and ending upbeat is not ideal. I’d have closed out the album with the moody Broken Arrow and started it with Showdown, moving Fallen Angel into the middle.

Despite that its a good album, which i’ll return to. A good choice from an artist I only knew fleetingly before.

Chris Elliott: I struggle with this. It's fine but... Robbie Robertson was lead when Dylan went electric, played on Blonde on Blonde, and made two masterpieces with the Band. This is rather forgettable in comparison.

Peter Langridge: I didn't know about Robbie until this album. Every track is great with some classics.

Edward Boult: A truly great album, should be firmly cemented in anyone’s lower to mid list of best 100 albums to listen to before you die. Not trying to be negative, but there are so many great albums out there.

Greg Schwepe: So, here’s the $8 question (or whatever the price of a prerecorded cassette was in 1987) for myself; why did I buy this album when it came out and why did I (still do!) like it so much?

As someone who didn’t really “get” The Band, why would I buy a solo album from one of its members? I mean, I know the contributions The Band made in the annals of classic rock, but I didn’t get too far past The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in terms of interest.

But as much as people used to (still do?) slam Corporate Rock Radio, this time around, it did me a favour. The FM station I listened to used to take a handful of songs I’m sure were pushed by their corporate office and played (overplayed?) them over and over and over. Sound familiar? Well, in this case it was actually something I liked; Showdown At Big Sky. And after hearing that song 10 times or more in one week, I probably decided to grab it at my local Camelot Records. "All right, all right, I'll buy it!... wow... this is good."

And what I didn’t know until I bought it and saw the credits was the list of guest artists who played on this. Not an “All Star” album where they were there to prop up the artist, but in this case a lot of people (U2, Peter Gabriel, members of The Band, the list is long), who probably jumped at the chance to contribute.

While Showdown At Big Sky might have piqued my interest to buy this. It only got better once I got a chance to listen to the whole thing; Sweet Fire Of Love, Hell’s Half Acre, and the swampy Somewhere Down The Crazy River. And speaking of swampy, that song and the other atmospheric and somewhat brooding sounds are also the hallmark of producer Daniel Lanois.

And like all music, those favourites of ours all have this certain vibe that just grabs us at this time, and this album was one of them for me. 9+ out of 10 for me on this one.

Philip Qvist: Interesting album this; I remember playing this album to death in the late 80s, until I didn't - and I probably hadn't listened to it for the best part of 30 years.

Robbie Robertson's debut solo album has a lot going for it; great songwriting as you would expect from him, a stellar list of guest artists and well crafted songs. Somewhere Down The Crazy River is pure quality, while Showdown At Big Sky and Fallen Angel are also highlights of the album.

But there is a big flaw here and it is the vocals; as you realise that while Robbie Robertson was the chief songwriter for The Band, there is a very good reason why Richard Manual, Rick Danko and Levon Helm did all the singing. The artist may have been better off employing guest singers on some of the songs. There is also a hint of overproduction on some of the tunes.

That all said, Robbie Robertson's legacy is secure; Songs From The Big Pink, The Band and The Last Waltz has ensured that - and his 1987 debut has enhanced this reputation. However, this album could (should) have been much better than the final product.

Andrew Bramah: A very atmospheric collection of beautifully written songs. As close to perfect as it's possible to get.

Evan Sanders: I enjoyed being introduced to this album, as I had previously only heard Somewhere Down The Crazy River and multiple Grateful Dead versions of Broken Arrow. It's both a clear departure from the more folk rock songs of The Band and what feels like a blueprint for Storyville, released four years later. I admire him for this pair of high quality albums, which feel both like personal statements and establishing independence from Bob Dylan and The Band. Not as strong as Storyville, so I'll give it 6 or 7 out of 10.


Final score: 8.09 (54 votes cast, total score 437)

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