Despite a prolific solo career spanning three+ decades, Robbie Robertson admittedly hasn’t penned too many songs about his own life. His first album in five years, Sinematic still has the spectral electronic pulse that’s become the post-Band Robertson trademark sound he first began developing with Daniel Lanois on 1987’s eponymously titled solo debut. And it could very well be the best of Robertson’s solo discography, rife with elements heard on previous LPs like Storyville, Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy and How To Become Clairvoyant. But this effort is bolder, stronger and more personal than ever.
The intersection of multiple projects, some of the material comprises the score for old pal Martin Scorcese’s upcoming film, The Irishman. Robertson has the pedal to the floor in 2019 as he’s been simultaneously working on Sinematic and music for the Scorcese flick, as well as the Of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band documentary. As The Band co-founder put it, he didn’t know how to keep them separate. So he didn’t.
Robertson has always offset his limited vocal range with a penchant for lyrically economic storytelling. Sonically, this latest incursion is an extension of 2011’s How to Become Clairvoyant with its atmospheric melodies underpinning lush guitar layering, synths and powerful backing vocals contrasting Robertson’s dry, conversational vocal stylings. The instrumentation throughout is huge and layered, laden with Robertson’s husky narration, offset by sermonizing lyrics from the pulpit, bringing us true crime-influenced yarns like the “I Hear You Paint Houses,” “Shanghai Blues” and the Orson Wells tribute, “The Shadow.”
Always boasting a lineup of heavies on all his solo efforts, stalwart session bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Chris Dave provide a tasteful, understated rhythm section throughout, while the aforementioned “I Hear You Paint Houses” features a vocal cameo by Van Morrison—though far more was expected here. Other guest singers include J.S. Ondara, Citizen Cope and Glen Hansard. However, the standouts are Laura Satterfield and backing vocalist Felicity Williams, who are particularly robust on “Walk In A Beauty Way.”
“Beautiful Madness” was inspired by the period of time when Robertson and Scorcese shared a house in late-70s Hollywood. And other, more autobiographical songs were born from Robertson’s memoirs, beginning with the 2016 book Testimony and its in-progress follow up.
Clocking in at about an hour, Sinematic contains two stylish, cinematic instrumentals, “Wandering Souls” and the closing track, “Remembrance.” The latter, a tribute to Robertson’s late friend, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, showcases Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II and is another example of the overlap between his various projects, as it will be the bed track during the closing credits of The Irishman.