Saturday, October 26, 2013

Song #399 of 9999 - Fallen Angel by Robbie Robertson

Song #399 of 9999

Title: Fallen Angel
Artist: Robbie Robertson
Year: 1987
Album: Robbie Robertson

(I passed on the actual video so you could enjoy paintings by Diego Rivera!)

Having a little trouble getting motivated but I took an unscheduled day off yesterday to spend the evening playing music with a friend so I figured I better crank something out today! 1987 just isn't very inspiring, I'm afraid. There are a handful of good albums but they're almost all marked by a very specific drum sound (among other things) that is very very dated. I didn't feel this way about 1986 so I'm going to go on record and say 1987 may have been the beginning of the end for the era.

The producer making the most interesting music of the time was Daniel Lanois. Having made his first big splash with Peter Gabriel's So, Lanois produced a string of successes including U2's The Joshua Tree, Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, his own solo album Acadie and Robbie Robertson's eponymous solo debut. In conjunction with Brian Eno, Lanois helped shape U2's sound in ways even they most certainly could not have imagined (credits include The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby, All That You Can Leave Behind, and New Line on the Horizon). But while future productions would show more range (Ron Sexsmith, Luscious Jackson's Fever In, Fever Out), Lanois' 1980s output seemed somewhat limited to simply applying the "Lanois sound" (my quotes) to existing artists (Willie Nelson's Teatro, Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball). And no matter how exquisite that sound may be—and it really was exquisite, especially in 1987—homogenizing the sound of an entire lot of big name pop and country artists in an attempt to revive their careers isn't a great long-term strategy in my book.

But you know what? It worked for me with Robbie Robertson. I was never a fan of The Band and didn't have high expectations for Robertson's first solo record. And while songs like "Sweet Fire of Love" sound incredibly out of place (it is essentially a U2 song with Robbie Robertson's vocals), the bulk of this album holds up pretty well as a fine collection of songs, despite its heavy-handed production. "Fallen Angel," Robertson's elegy for former Band mate Richard Manuel, who took his own life in 1986, displays all the hallmarks of Lanois' production, including Manu Katché's syncopated drum work, Peter Gabriel's vocals and synth pads and a wash of wash of reverb that casts a sheen on the whole thing. There's also this sort of tribal world music influence evident in the heart-beat drum sequence that opens the piece and backing vocals that show up around 3:31—a well-worn arrow in Lanois' quiver.

I cannot deny it it a splendidly produced record but I have a hard time finding Robertson's prints anywhere on the thing. Which, for me, in 1987 was probably a good thing. Now, not as much. But as I focus on Robertson's expressive and revealing vocal performance (while simultaneously trying to tune out random splash cymbals), I'm thankful for any part Lanois played in bringing it out of him. It may be for a lack of experience with his catalog but I can't recall hearing anything this moving from Robertson prior to this record. It's a captivating performance and worthy of a setting with fewer distractions.


  1. I agree there are so many great songs / albums destroyed by that over-expansive, over-compensating production that marred the late 80s. However if you're looking for a great album from 1987, may I throw "Surfer Rosa" your way?

    1. I've got that as being released in 1988. *shrug* Could be a US thing.