By 1975 The Band were at a crossroads they had not released an album of new material since Cahoots in 1971, the toll of life on the road and the demands of outside session and production work had made it more and more difficult to keep the collaboration going. Richard Manuel was sinking further into drug and alcohol addiction and Robbie Robertson was becoming increasingly tired of treading that endless highway and trying to corral the Band into creative pursuits.
Robertson sensed that a return to the camaraderie of their early years that propelled the brilliance of Music From Big Pink and The Band was required. The Band rented their own studio facility Shangri La at Zuma Beach and begun the process of recording new material in the spring of 1975. Northern Lights is an album that requires careful attention it's too easy to compare it to their earlier work, it's an album that definitely grows on you, there is some strong material and the musicianship is flawless. What makes it a more challenging listen first up is that it doesn't have the same bare approach as their first two studio albums, with access to their own 24 track studio the album has a more layered sound, with Garth Hudson overdubbing copious amounts of synthesizer. When I first listened to this album it felt a little sterile, less crisp and lean than their early work, but on further contact it gives the songs a bit more scope and pushes the band into more unfamiliar territory. Another reason for my hesitant feeling towards this album is that Richard Manuel was no longer writing material and his songs provided a crucial counterpoint to the story telling narrative of Robertson. Manuel was an especially sensitive and nuanced songwriter who captured the wounded spirit like no other, so I always feel that when he stopped writing it changed the dynamic and effected their later work.
Forbidden Fruit gives a glimpse of the frustration that Robertson was feeling at the time, it's a cautionary tale of drug addiction which was a big problem within the Band at that time. It also addressed his growing dislike of being on the road, being on the "graveyard shift". Levon is suited to the lead vocal, his voice continued to get better on each album and he took over the role of conveying a song that required rawness and emotion.
High and lonesome out on Times Square
Haven't got a dime, ain't got a prayer
Deliver us Lord from this golden calf
People only want what they cannot have
Forbidden fruit, that;s the fruit you had better not taste
You've got one life you had better not waste.
Hobo Jungle is typical Robertson story telling, his fascination with life on the road surrounded by a cast of characters from drifters to rounders formed the basis for a lot of greatest work. Richard takes the lead and re-discovers his plaintive voice, haunting and soft telling the story of a drifter riding box card from place to place. The line "he was a stray bird and the road was his callin" could easily have applied to a young Robertson himself. Ophelia has a distinctive New Orleans feel with some nice funky guitar work from Robertson, it's a salacious southern tale and Levon was a more than adept narrator. Acadian Driftwood is the best song on the album, it's a heartfelt tribute to Robertson's homeland of Canada, it features some of the best harmony vocal work the Band ever committed to tape. It covers the troubled history of Nova Scotia and the displacement of the Arcadians many of whom drifted south to New Orleans. Each vocalist covers a different narrative, capturing the despair of statelessness and isloation,
Ever lasting summer filled with ill content
This Government had us walking in chains
This isn't my turf
This ain't my season
Can't think of one good reason to remain
I've worked in the sugar field up from New Orleans
It was ever green up until the floods
You could call it an omen
Points ya where you goin
Set my compass north
I've got winter in my blood
Rick Danko opens up Ring Your Bell with a sliding funky bass line, some nice trade off between the three vocalists, this is another song with a New Orleans feel. Garth as he does throughout the album conjures up these amazing sonic textures. Rags and Bones harks back to Robertsons days growing up in Cabbagetown in Toronto. Robbie didn't write a lot of songs with a personal lament but he created one of his best with It Makes No Difference, just a powerhouse love song. Rick made this song his own, it was his calling card for decade to come, he gives such a trembling, desperate performance it gives you goose bumps. Robbie bounces off this in the break between verses with stabbing notes before Garth finishes the song off with some nice tenor sax work. I think this should have been the lead single off the album instead of Ophelia, I also think that they should have included Twilight on the album, instead it was relegated to a B side.
It makes no difference, how far I go
Like a scar the hurt will always show
It makes no difference who I meet
They're just a face in a crowd
On a dead end street
Jupiter Hollow is a work out for Garth with some layered dense snyth explorations, the rest of the song is non-descript but Garth was showing some glimpses of where he would head after the Last Waltz. Northern Lights, Southern Cross shows more purpose than Cahoots, it seems that Robbie no longer felt the shackles of having to come up with another Big Pink. Whilst Richard was in decline at this point his vocal contributions are impressive, whilst the fire from his voice is gone that plaintive soulful delivery is still there. Levon is the masterful bayou drummer boy, that jungle beat just keeps that groove going. It would have been better if this had been their last studio album and not Islands.