THE BAND: NORTHERN LIGHTS – SOUTHERN CROSS (1975)
1) Forbidden Fruit; 2) Hobo Jungle; 3) Ophelia; 4) Acadian Driftwood; 5) Ring Your Bell; 6) It Makes No Difference; 7) Jupiter Hollow; 8) Rags & Bones; 9*) Twilight; 10*) Christmas Must Be Tonight.
The first «proper» Band album in four years — and, as it turned out, the last to have any significant importance: Islands would be recorded a year later mainly to fulfill contractual obligations, and all the rest comes after the Robertson-less reunion. This time, though, Robbie pulls no punches: everything, every single chord change and word is credited to him personally, setting the proper stage for the apex of self-glorification that would come with The Last Waltz. But on the other hand, this is still The Band — Levon's drumming, Hudson's magic rituals behind the keyboards, and Manuel's and Danko's singing count as much here as Robbie's songwriting.
On second thought, emphasize that — they count more than Robbie's songwriting. Because, frankly speaking, by the time they reached this point, Robertson was far from interested in the technical side of this business. Not a single song here shows the inventiveness of a ʽKing Harvestʼ or even an ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ — for the most part, this is pretty standard fare roots-rock, and you can easily get the likes of ʽForbidden Fruitʼ, ʽOpheliaʼ, ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ, etc., on a million billion other roots-rock records released before and after November 1975.
So what does make the difference is the «Band treatment» of these, rather conventional, musical skeletons. And in 1975, that treatment was a little different. Northern Lights is nowhere near as ambitious as Big Pink — it never launches a full-scale assault on epic Biblical heights; instead, it channels the group's depressive, world-weary emotional side into smaller rivulets, and even subtly disguises all that darkness by means of playful rhythms that regularly invite you to dance along (ʽOpheliaʼ, ʽRags & Bonesʼ) or at least to join in with all the «group fun» on sing-along, clap-along choruses (ʽJupiter Hollowʼ). But in reality, this is probably the saddest, bitterest record they ever made in their entire career.
Sound-wise, there are two important changes. First, the record reflects Hudson's new-found passion for synthesizers: there are lots of «progressive» synth textures here, generated with enough sense and taste so as not to sound ridiculously dated to the modern ear — and contributing quite highly to the overall cold effect of the album. Second, Robertson finally finds a way to compensate for his lack of singing voice — developing a new style of soloing, with emphasis on jerky, tearing, high-pitched, agonizing «scream-chords» (you can see a lot of it in The Last Waltz, with Robbie always pulling funny faces at the same time) that might be a bit «show-off», but are actually delivered with grace and harmony (ʽForbidden Fruitʼ and ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ are two prime examples of this new style). It all adds a bit of pizzazz, and it all works out.
Lyrically, ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ is one of the simplest Band songs ever — just a regular old lost love lament — but it is the album's definitive highlight, I think, maybe Danko's finest vocal performance: the guy was born on this earth to lament about lost love, and, finally, here is a tune tailor-made for him to wail on, with Robbie on «shrieking guitar» and Garth on moody sax as the perfect counteracts. Slow, simple, lengthy, and quite beautiful — and note the utter lack of theatrical, overwrought «desperation», particularly in the dirgey, but very much restrained chorus harmonies ("and the sun don't shine anymore...").
ʽAcadian Driftwoodʼ is usually designated as the album's centerpiece, because it is the longest, the most «epic», and the only directly «Americana-History-related» song on the record, and also because all three singers share lead vocals in turn (think ʽThe Weightʼ) — but in reality, its melancholy is no more and no less impressive than on any other song here. It does urge one to self-educate, though (I honestly knew nothing about The /Great/ Acadian Expulsion myself before hearing the song), unlike ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ, but then don't we all have Al Stewart for those sort of purposes?.. Anyway, Byron Berline plays a catchy fiddle and Garth is all over the place with accordeons and recorders, so it all sounds great in the end.
On other sides of the compass, The Band comes up with fabulous grooves — ʽRing Your Bellʼ toys with funk/R&B, but not in a «rip-it-up» manner (these guys didn't even have enough ripping power to properly play ʽHang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoesʼ, how could they compete with a James Brown or a Funkadelic?), rather in a «let's find a nifty musical solution here» manner: the keyboard / brass call-and-response bits are exactly that kind of solution. ʽOpheliaʼ is dance-oriented blues-rock at its simplest, but somehow, again, the brass/synthesizer arrangements coupled with Levon's snarly delivery make the whole thing really tense and snappy.
In a way, this is The Band's Abbey Road — not in terms of similarities in style, of course, or relative importance to the world of music as such — but in terms of working like a swan song from an old, wisened, very much self-conscious, yet still fully competent and proactive swan (the biggest difference probably being that the Beatles knew very well this was going to be their last record, whereas Robbie had no thoughts of cutting access to The Band's studio hours as of yet). Northern Lights sets out to prove nothing — everything that could be proven already was: it's just a bunch of songs gelled together by a common feeling of loneliness and abandon and wrapped in several layers of mature wisdom and professionalism.
I do demand that credit for all these songs be removed from «Robbie Robertson» and given to «The Band» — had Robbie Robertson hired himself The Eagles or Black Oak Arkansas to record the album, the results would most likely turned out appropriately mind-numbing. But in the end, it's all between Robbie and his former pals; my role in all this is strictly limited to providing a respectful thumbs up. And I do like the stylish bonfire cover, except that even there, they had to put Robbie on top. On the other hand, as legitimate head of the outlaw gang, he now gets the honor of being hung highest of them all.
Check "Northern Lights - Southern Cross" (MP3) on Amazon