Robbie Robertson - Contact from the Underworld of Redboy
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A lot’s packed into the title of Robbie Robertson’s last solo album, 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. Like the fantasy pejorative-turned-point-of-pride, “Redboy”—the album was the culmination of Robertson’s reclamation of the music of Native Americans. There are the quasi-hip-hop implications of “underworld”; throughout the album, Robertson will posit the idea of Native American culture—“Indian” culture to use his own words—as a subterranean stratum of American life, suppressed, buried but spreading like buffalo grass roots.
And then there is that tricky framing noun, “Contact.” Unqualified (not “first,” not “last”) the word is ambivalent. “Contact” embraces many crimes: a touch, a word, a blow. Robertson’s mythologized “Contact” is a glancing moment, evoking both the intrusion of white culture that smothers but cannot extinguish Indian culture, and the responding contact, whose origins may lie beyond the borders of this world.
Back up a little. Are we talking Space Indians?
By the time of Contact, Robertson had come a long way from the underage, firespitting guitarist of the Hawks. Disbanding the Band by executive fiat in 1976, he laid low for a decade before reemerging with the classic rock summation of his self-titled solo album, which made up for a vague sense of self-satisfaction with a scope and passion that made for natural collaborations with Peter Gabriel and U2. If Robbie Robertson was classicist, the follow-up, Storyville was a further step backwards, framing Robertson’s instinctual guitar in the weathered architecture of the titular New Orleans district, overripe enough to encompass a heartbreaking collaboration with the Blue Nile, “Breaking The Rules.”
Having backed himself into a historical corner, Robertson then painted himself into another by releasing an album almost fetishistically devoted to the Native American music his was espousing with increasing ferocity. One of the world’s finer songwriters had, in the space of three albums, turned himself into a curator of styles that had once been effortlessly his own.
Where to go when the earth offers nothing but revivalism and memories? Why, space, of course, as any Outkast fan could tell you. Contact is a self-conscious synthesis of Robertson’s several pasts, built one upon another like a staircase to a starship. It is also an extremely angry album, though Robertson seems reluctant to name his opponents outright. Contact opens with an expression of crisis, a summation of Robertson’s existential fear of extinction, both musical and tribal, preamble to a counterattack. Playing a gnomic Indian incantation over a synthetic beat, Robertson states: “The sound is fading… the sound is fading away,” mumbling into the leading edge of a squalling, overtone-ridden guitar. Robertson’s wordless keening is mournful but not funereal: any loss is outweighed by present demands.
Contact’s doldrums are the quasi-mystical, quasi-nationalist history lessons. “The Code of Handsome Lake” meanders through a Dances With Wolves-type account of Indian wisdom, oppression, and perseverance, full of subject-less passives:
When native life was hurled“Sacrifice” is more explicit, underwriting Leonard Peltier’s narration of his arrest and imprisonment with a creaking, ominous pulse, a piercing refrain and a bitter chorus:
Into the pit
By way of the cannon, rum and greed
Oh a great fire was burning
Gonna let the smoke rise
And show the Six Nations
The code was still alive.
Sacrifice your languageTold by Peltier himself, the story is one of gross injustice, of punishment without proof, though he never denies any particular crime. The unrelenting nobility might be screed-y, but Robertson’s textural setting is unexpectedly compelling, and he follows it up with his first real hint of genuine anger. “Rattlebone” addresses the suppression, preservation, and resurgence of culture, embodied by a man “chanting down the street / Like a cannibal in Manhattan.” No passive voice here, but a non-specific “they,” the people who dyed his hair, hid his feathers, told him he was Latin. The song interleaves a breathless stammering chant with a slick electronic bass pattern, and sports a brief, articulate, raging guitar solo.
Sacrifice your prayer
Take away your language
Cut off all your hair.
Sacrifice the loved ones
Who always stood by me
Stranded in the wasteland
Set my spirit free.
I may as well come out and say it: Robertson’s lyrics, with the exception of the final, “bonus” track, never hit on the intimate resonant observations familiar from his best work with the Band; no “Stage Fright,” no “The Shape I’m In.” Contact is both too polemical and too political an album; Robertson’s minimalist solos are more articulate than his lyrics. But there are moments, like the good verses on a conscious rap album. On “Making a Noise,” Robertson talk-sings in his curiously strangled voice, “Everyone has a song… You can bet your ass I won’t go quietly / Making a noise in this world.” The basic message—persecution and revolt—is obvious, particularly coupled with the spoken word bridge that culminates in the line “This is the kind of silence that frightens white men.” Robertson draws on his idea of Indian mythology to rejuvenate a rock sensibility that had begun to wear thin on him after twenty years, struggling to articulate a hybrid form vigorous enough to encompass hiss weighty political convictions and his envy of electronic beats. But the curiosity is in Robertson’s insistence on “this world,” suggesting, as he does throughout the album, the presence of other worlds.
“Unbound,” the only song from the album to get any radio play, does not jettison Robertson’s newfound tribal nationalism (this from the man who “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) but recasts it as a personal search, singing “I am lost… Has anybody seen me? I am lost.” Robertson, after sitting on his guitar for the first third of the album trumps the pseudo-R&B backing vocals with his first solo of the album: a tense, looping phrase.
The latter third of the album is a lush trio of songs that all proceed from striking Indian chants, which nonetheless almost entirely avoid the Deep Forest pitfalls thanks to Robertson’s conviction. “Peyote Healing” is a bittersweet, inward-facing call threaded through with aching guitar filigree; “In the Blood” mourns the intimate ties of race and history, the determination to speak up, which Robertson does with his greatest solo of the album. “Stomp Dance (Unity)” is easily the most upbeat thing on the album, a vision of ultimate victory and revival that is also its most conventional song. Were it not for the Indian harmonies, it’s big-sky sound would fit on Robertson’s self-titled album from eleven years earlier.
Tellingly, however, Robertson chooses to conclude the album with the echoing, static-ridden dirge “The Lights,” that places itself “Just on the outskirts of civilization” and evokes “Our relatives from the sky.” The song builds gradually, adding an electronic hi-hat pattern, a terse guitar riff, beaten sleigh bells, a blocked chunk of electronic noise… It is tantalizing, both because it never hits the all-in climax that it clearly deserves, but also because somewhere in the midst of the layered noise, Robertson finally hits on something like the sound he’s been grasping at throughout Contact.
So it is only on the supposed bonus track, “Take Your Partner By the Hand (Red Alert Mix),” and a scattering of new-and-improved mixes on the new Classic Masters set of remixes and old tracks, that we can hear what an album less burdened might have sounded like. (Classic Masters revises “Bet your ass” to “Bet your life,” which might have aged better.) “Take Your Partner” may be about transvestitism (“He’s a woman, she’s a man / What’s so hard to understand? / Just take your partner by the hand”) but is breezily unencumbered by agenda or identity politics. “This is about smoke and sweat and beats… This is about no message,” he mutters, wandering through a disjointed cityscape in a story-song counterpart to “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” The album ends with one of the minor, ambiguously off-the-cuff observations that made songs like “The Weight” timeless:
Then as quickly as she appeared, she disappeared
Back into the slash and burn of New York.
Ah, stuck in traffic.
Crosstown, the stress of not moving.
She described it as like being locked in a car
With a madman behind the wheel
And the radio tuned to static.