Robbie wouldn’t have been any band’s choice for a lead vocalist, so the idea of a solo album on which he sang all the songs raised eyebrows everywhere. But in a masterstroke of timing, he hooked up with Daniel Lanois, and his eponymous solo debut arrived in the wake of the multiplatinum success of Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree. Robbie Robertson also tapped most of the musicians—and the two singers—involved with both albums, making the listening experience familiar.
“Fallen Angel” burbles up slowly, a lovely tribute to he recently departed Richard Manuel. Peter Gabriel sings the harmony parts on the chorus that Richard himself might have sung had he lived to do so. The first single was “Showdown At Big Sky”, with all-star contributions only on the level of the BoDeans, but enough of an apocalyptic echo of “Red Rain” to sound great on the radio. “Broken Arrow” could’ve been another Richard song, and would soon be covered by Rod Stewart. But a lot of kids likely bought the album on the basis of “Sweet Fire Of Love”, wherein Robbie trades vocal lines with Bono over a U2 backing.
One track that wore out its novelty pretty quickly was “American Roulette”, which references the demises of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with clumsy metaphors and references. “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” is also an acquired taste, with its overly dramatic narration, counterpoints from Sammy BoDean, and a video in which Robbie got to paw Maria McKee. “Hell’s Half Acre” is lyrically slight but a good rocker, while the noir-storytelling “Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight” is redeemed by Rick Danko. And U2 returns to help him bang out “Testimony” with a Gil Evans horn section for a rousing conclusion.
As we’ve seen and heard too many times, an all-star cast doesn’t always guarantee quality, but somehow Robbie’s ragged voice matched the lyrics he certainly wrote himself without dispute, and the swampy production on Robbie Robertson still sounds fitting all this time later. Back then, it seemed like quite a comeback. (A later repackage added two tracks—his own remake of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” for the Scrooged soundtrack and an overly gospel remix of “Testimony”.)
Robbie Robertson Robbie Robertson (1987)—4