This new set could benefit from a little more recklessness and some more risk-taking.
After The Band’s invaluable run ended in the mid-’70s, songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson turned to film as much as he stuck with more traditional rock music. In doing so, he revealed a skill at capturing atmosphere in a way that shed new light on his career. Robertson could leave the world of Americana rock (or whatever it was The Band did) and build on electronic music or whatever style was called for. His work in that world – particularly Martin Scorsese’s imminent The Irishman and an upcoming Band documentary – influenced his new album Sinematic. With that sort of foundation, the album rises and falls on Robertson’s skill at atmosphere, with his moods impeccable but his songwriting falling a little behind.
As the album title suggests, Robertson takes particular interest in more questionable characters and stories. The tracks here could come with a red light, or a police light, or maybe no light at all. A track like “Walk in Beauty Way” gets there quickly, the sensual mood heightened by Felicity Williams’ memorable vocal. Opener “I Hear You Paint Houses” struggles a little more, with an introductory guitar riff that promises something deviant followed by a more chill groove. Even as Robertson suggests, “Shall we take a little spin/ To the dark side of town?” the music doesn’t dig in. It’s an intro for a storyteller with a stool, not a murderer with a cloak.
For the most part, though, Robertson nails his moods, sometimes too cleanly. His professionalism gets a boost from the bass playing of Pino Palladino, noted for his work with the Who but with the skill to help Robertson construct nearly visual worlds. These songs yearn for screen time, and with characters caught up in violence and psychosis, the musicians fence them in with proper surroundings. The album closes with “Remembrance,” an end-credits instrumental, a perfect blend of guitar (by Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II), strings and harmonica. Robertson’s composition shows his care and intelligence as an artist. He still has plenty to say.
Unfortunately, he’s not always saying it here. If the music suits its scenes and narratives, the lyrics and vocals don’t match the instrumental work. “Hardwired,” spoken like a bad Nick Cave cut, never finds purpose. At other times, the songs falter under their dated sound. Many of these cuts build on Robertson’s experience, but they don’t move forward. The album could have been released in the early ’90s with little change. On a given track, that note wouldn’t matter, but the recurrent sound makes the disc sound not timeless, but beholden.
Even so, Sinematic reveals Robertson’s not inconsiderable skill. It becomes clear why he’s spent so much time in the film world and – as much as he once sounded native to the deep South – he sounds born to it. This new set could benefit from a little more recklessness and some more risk-taking. As good as it can sound, it also feels like music that Robertson could write in his sleep by now, and while that might make for a pleasing listen, it doesn’t suit a performer of his stature.