Cahoots and the oldies LP, Moondog Matinee, weren't exactly auspicious developments in a recording career with beginnings as brilliant as the Band's. Their playing behind Bob Dylan on Planet Waves and Before the Flood as well as on the earlier Basement Tapes has been more accomplished and stirring than any of their own music since The Band, and it is against these efforts as sidemen that their first album of new songs in four years must inevitably be judged. The first few seconds of Northern Lights — Southern Cross promise a departure. Robbie Robertson's usually clean, cutting guitar quavers through a wah-wah and phase-shifter, and Garth Hudson is using multiple synthesizers to create an orchestra-like overlay. The entrance of Levon Helm's voice, its Arkansas inflection intact, provides a familiar reference, but only momentarily. The vocals on earlier Band albums tended to blur into murkily homogenous instrumental backdrops, but here Levon and the answering voices of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko are mixed forward, ringing through loud and clear. The listener realizes during the first few bars of music the extent to which the antique sepia-tinged flavor of the first Band albums was a result of their determinedly primitive mixes. Before long it's equally evident that the Band's new sound is the result of a revolution in instrumental and recording technology and not of a revolution in ideas.
Robertson's new songs are set in his native north country, from the "smoky bars and souped up cars" that comprised the Canadian landscape of his youth to the porn theaters of Times Square, New York, and for the most part they attempt to render emotion directly rather than through the medium of characters. Unfortunately, the self-dramatization and occasional baldness which marred the more personal songs on Cahoots are still present. "It Makes No Difference" wallows in emotional excess ("Since you've gone it's a losin' battle/Stampedin' cattle they rattle the walls") and the down-and-out narrator of "Forbidden Fruit" wonders, as he wanders past the sleaze palaces of 42nd Street, "... is this part of man's evolution/To be torn between truth and illusion?" Several other songs are so introverted they're almost antiexpressive. "Hobo Jungle" may be more than an account of the death and funeral of a drifter, but the significance of the words to their author isn't made clear. "Rags and Bones," which ends the album, consists of an obsessive catalog of urban sights and sounds with only a passing evocation of déjà vu to indicate what they mean to Robertson or are supposed to mean to the listener. In "Jupiter Hollow," an apparent dream journey into states of mental dissociation, Robertson notes matter-of-factly, without seeming to complain, that "nobody cares when a man goes mad/And tries to free the ghost within." Even "Ophelia" and "Ring Your Bell," both relatively lightweight sagas of mounties, outlaws and renegade women, come replete with forebodings of separation and retributive justice. Robertson is true to his roots in the far north, where window shades stay drawn throughout the year and comments on the weather are usually answered with that most noncommittal of affirmatives, "Ayuh." He expresses pain, frustration and desperation, but cannot really reveal himself; even devoted analysts of the Band's oeuvre can have only a vague notion of how it feels to be Robbie Robertson.
Robertson's re-creations of the American past have been the most unique and the most easily accessible of his songs, and predictably enough Northern Lights' most unambiguous success is its one historical narrative, "Acadian Driftwood." Richard Manuel and Levon Helm are at their mood-sustaining best as they take turns tracing the odyssey of the French-speaking Acadians from Canada to the sugar fields of Louisiana. The lyrics are direct and earthy, the melody is the most memorable on the LP and the instrumental arrangement is positively breathtaking. Garth Hudson surrounds the keening fiddle of guest Byron Berline with the sounds of a whining bagpipe chanter, an accordion and a piping piccolo, while Robertson adds restrained chordal punctuations on acoustic guitar and Manuel maintains a burry rhythm line on clavinet. The chorus sings "Canadian cold front/Movin'in," but the words are almost unnecessary; the arrangement makes you feel the cold in your bones.
In fact, all the arrangements are superb. They camouflage the deficiencies of the material so successfully that on a purely sensual, noncognitive level, Northern Lights is invigorating. Levon sings lead on over half the songs. His nuanced twang is the perfect foil for the more histrionic deliveries of Manuel and Danko, and his drumming is as crisp and incisive as ever. Garth Hudson's contributions reveal the most spectacular individual growth. "Ophelia" is of interest principally because he has overdubbed an orchestra of brass woodwinds and synthesizers, and dovetailed all his instruments precisely into the deliberate pulsation of the tune's rhythm track. The veiled phenomenology of "Jupiter Hollow" is lent an air of arcane mystery by his succinct string synthesizer and vibrantly dissonant Lowrey organ. On "Hobo Jungle" his organ and accordion blend with Robertson's acoustic guitar and melodica into a delight of shifting luminosities. The influence of New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint, who wrote horn charts for the Band's live Rock of Ages LP, is evident in the offbeat rhythm patterns played by drums and bass in "Ring Your Bell," "Forbidden Fruit" and "Ophelia," and in the snaking shapes of Hudson's brass and reed lines as well, but the overall sound remains rustic, due largely to the roughness of Hudson's horns and the country-style close harmony of the vocalists. This characteristic stylistic mix is taken to almost uncanny extreme in "Ophelia," which manages to sound like a 19th-century period piece with brass-band accompaniment despite the prominently featured electric organs, synthesizers and Seventies funk rhythms.
The least satisfying instrumental work comes from Robertson, usually the Band's most arresting soloist. He has made a career of turning technical limitations into stylistic triumphs, beginning with his simple but riveting solo on Ronnie Hawkins's "Who Do You Love?" and continuing through his supercharged breaks and pumping rhythm riffs on the Dylan/Band tour. His lead guitar on "Forbidden Fruit" and "It Makes No Difference" conveys his familiar fire, but again and again, in "Fruit," "Ophelia," "Difference" and "Rags and Bones," he employs the device of repeatedly hammering on a single note, oddly paralleling the insistent listing of undeveloped images in the words to "Bones." Until he begins to at least formulate the problems with which he is grappling through his music, the Band's records will doubtless continue to be, like this one, exquisitely put together, emotionally affecting, melodious, sincere, and like a picture puzzle with one piece missing, slightly but significantly awry.