“There’ll be no revival/there’ll be no encore,” sings Robbie Robertson in a raspy voice — a voice rarely heard in the Band — on “Once Were Brothers.” It’s a sing-speaking voice here, like latter-day Leonard Cohen with less gravitas, or Robertson’s old boss Dylan with less insouciance. A narrator’s voice, in a sense, which is its basic role on Sinematic, Robertson’s first LP since his guest-packed 2011 How to Become Clairvoyant, and first since the 2012 death of estranged Band-mate Levon Helm, an album of story-songs set to the sort of diaphanous blues-rock that characterizes Robertson’s expansive film music.
The story told in “Once Were Brothers,” which shares its name with the new documentary based on Robertson’s memoir, is about a guy missing his bros, a group of men who grew apart, and are now gone. It conjures the Civil War alongside an allusion to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Band signature, which Robertson wrote. “Once Were Brothers” is a moving song that puts end-game spin on the narrative of a famously fractious band, by the near-last man standing. “Can’t even remember what we were fighting for,” Robertson sings, though one imagines not everyone felt that way.
But it’s certainly Robertson’s story to tell, as is “Dead End Kid,” another autobiographical song, this one about growing up in Toronto with big dreams among haters. On other songs, Robertson steps outside of himself. “Hardwired” is a meditation on humanity and its sketchy circuitry, as are “Shanghai Blues” and “I Hear You Paint Houses,” in a sense — both are about hitmen, perhaps unsurprising from a guy who’s spent decades working with Martin Scorsese. On the latter song (informed by Charles Brandt’s book, basis for Scorsese’s The Irishman), Robertson is joined by Van Morrison, and the pair play jolly mobsters, gruffly harmonizing a threat to “put the cement in your shoes.” Then Robertson pops off some hot wah-wah’d leads, and you remember this guy is one of the greatest guitarists in rock’s history. Ultimately, the most satisfying moments on Sinematic are those: Robertson’s guitar is a voice that always rings true.