On Chris Robinson’s second solo album, This Magnificent Distance, the former Black Crowes singer managed to distance himself even further from his previous band than ever before. And while not exactly a depressing listen it is most certainly a far more cynical one than 2002’s New Earth Mud, a record many Crowes fans found both confusing and off-putting in equal measure. However here, Robinson is clearly in his element and in complete control. Having a crack band behind you doesn’t hurt either: George Lake (keyboards), George Reiff bass), Brothers Paul and Jeremy Stacey (on guitar and drums respectively), Ethan Johns (drums), Audley Freed (guitar), and Richard Causon (keyboards).
If nothing else, This Magnificent Distance makes for a broad expansive listen. The apocalyptic-rock of “40 Days” has the singer sounding both old and new, as if Robinson were reinventing himself through every line. The lyrics have a definite Dylan-esque quality to them, fraught with imagery that is as creative as it is visual. Next is “Girl on the Mountain”, with its fluid textures and psychedelic undertones. The Hippie Romanticism of “Mother of Stone” is pure early ‘70s stoner rock, while “(Last of the Old Time) Train Robbers” could be interpreted as an allegory for the Crowes following their torrid breakup (either that or his divorce from Kate Hudson).
“Like A Tumbleweed in Eden” continues the Western theme, although employment of the metaphor of rock musician as outlaw is nothing new (just ask The Eagles). “When the Cold Wind Blows at the Dark End of Night” is one of Robinson’s most accomplished compositions, and a dramatic one at that, especially during the chorus, where we find our protagonist waxing poetically albeit with an almost hallucinatory force that could blow the roof off your house at any moment.
The only song which doesn’t quite gel with me is “…If You See California”. Sure it has its moments, but isn’t quite as strong as everything else on here (at least they didn’t overdub an orchestra). “The Never Empty Table” is a reflective piece on which Robinson bares his heart and soul. The man has always been a superb lyricist, and I’d go so far as to say a poet too. The New Earth Mud band ramp it up a notch or two with the country-rock of “Eagles on the Highway”; stretch the fabric of space-time on “Surgical Glove” (peyote anyone?), and just basically rock out on “Sea of Love”. The LP concludes with the philosophically titled “Piece of Wind”, a mean and dirty rocker full of tough riffs and wailing blues harmonica courtesy of Robinson himself.
This Magnificent Distance is probably Chris Robinson’s most ambitious work ever, surpassing even some of his more recent efforts with The Brotherhood (although Big Moon Ritual comes pretty close). Mature not to mention lyrically refined, it’s a record The Black Crowes should have made were it not for the all the endless bickering that goes on between him and his brother. Distance is an album filled with panoramic vision and personal insight, caught between the sun and midnight. True, it may seem pessimistic in places, but that’s part of its appeal, since there’s enough light and shade going on here to cover the ever changing seasons throughout one’s life.