Robbie Robertson is a master storyteller. That, really, is his great talent. His biggest inspiration, he would have you believe, comes from film, and that makes a lot of sense when you look at his life and career, and especially his newest release, Sinematic.
Robertson’s lyrics have always been long on details that paint a picture without filling in all the blanks, while musically he works to create the song’s atmosphere. His best songs stick around and haunt you for weeks, months, even years after you’ve heard them because they are more like little movies with unforgettable scenes and characters than they are like standard rock songs.
This goes all the way back to his work with The Band. Virgil Caine, the narrator in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or the unnamed bankrupted farmer in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” are characters whose stories are told in narratives that give away many small secrets, but hold certain information close to their chests.
His solo work, which began in 1987 with Robbie Robertson, has always been cinematic as well, and Robertson has used his reputation in the musical community to enable him to cast the best musician or singer for the part, whether it’s Sam Llanas in “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” or his old Band collaborator Rick Danko on “Sonny Got Lost in the Moonlight.”
When Robbie decided to make Storyville about the influence of New and Louisiana on his music he was able to bring in musicians like the Nevilles and George Porter Jr., who represented the sounds of that locale. When he explored his Native American heritage on Music for Native Americans and Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy he was able to work with a variety of indigenous musicians as well as modern electronic producers like Howie B and Marius DeVries.
His most recent album, the just-released (and purposely misspelled) Sinematic, makes this concept of music as movie explicit since many of the tracks were inspired by two film projects he has been working on. The first is the latest in a long line of Martin Scorsese films he has worked on music for. The Irishman is Scorsese’s film about hitman Frank Sheeran, and it’s based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses.
“I Hear You Paint Houses’ opens Sinematic on a sinister note of simmering violence, with Robertson and Van Morrison trading lines like “Shall we take a little spin/to the dark side of town?” But the song wasn’t written for the film, really, as Robertson points out in one interview. “I wasn’t hired to write a song called ‘I Hear You Paint Houses'” (the title is a euphemism used for hiring a hitman). But when you’re a musician and songwriter of Robertson’s vintage, you can be inspired by one project to work on something else, and it appears that is how Robertson ended up planning Sinematic, his first album in eight years.
The second film project that had an influence on the new album was the recently released documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band. Though the documentary is not Robbie’s film, it is a chance for him to tell the story of the group he helped lead into the history of rock and roll one more time with an eye toward preserving the group’s legacy as well as his own.
Interviewing and providing archival material for the documentary no doubt put Robertson in a reflective mood and he dug deep to write the song “Once Were Brothers” about the breakdown and breakup of that legendary band. “There’ll be no revival/there’ll be no encore” he sings, acknowledging the hard truth of the deaths of three Band members and the unresolved conflict he regrets, on some level, from his 76-year-old vantage point.
Robertson continues to work on the followup to Testimony, the first of a projected three books of memoirs, and that has also had the effect of helping him to revisit a lot of the work he’s done through the years and to notice the connections between the various phases of his career. You can hear it in the way that certain tracks are reminiscent of periods of Robertson’s career. “Walk in Beauty Way,” based on a Navajo idea and sung by vocalist Felicity Williams, could have come from Red Boy, while “Let Love Reign” definitely sounds like his early solo work.
There are two instrumentals as well, with the album’s final track “Remembrance” featuring guitar work by Derek Trucks. Of course, there is a lot of great guitar work by Robertson as well, though it is heard best in the mix with headphones. Robbie Robertson has long been of the opinion that his guitar is better used as an ingredient in the gumbo rather than taking lengthy solos as the star of the show, and he continues that journeyman stance here. Make no mistake, though, his guitar is ever-present on Sinematic and it does everything a supporting actor should do.
Sinematic is the kind of album no one else is making these days, and that’s largely because no one ever has written songs or made albums like Robertson. His subject matter and attention to detail are more wide-ranging and, well, cinematic than pretty much any other songwriter from his era, and it’s great to hear him taking on a project like this once again.