Montreal-bred songwriter JF Robitaille is no stranger to lofty expectations. Yes, he’s long been celebrated as one of the most engaging songwriters North of the 49—a fact evident even in his earliest days, when he fronted indie- rock outfit the Social Register in the aughts—but with 2013’s Rival Hearts, the world began to take notice. After the album charted in Germany, he found himself playing for large crowds at Hamburg’s fabled Reeperbahn Festival along with several other gigs throughout that country. Robitaille’s international rep began to resemble his accolades in Canada. Here, a troubadour cut from the same cloth as Leonard Cohen. Or Nick Drake. Or Bob Dylan.
Those hat-tips were undoubtedly flattering—as was the appearance of Rival Hearts on plenty of year-end lists, including his hometown newspaper, the Montreal Gazette—but they also set an imposing precedent. Thankfully, with his third full-length, entitled “Palace Blues”, Robitaille has delivered on those expectations—just not in the way you’d expect. Robitaille’s literary penchant and sophisticated song craft may still get him Cohen comparisons, but unlike Leonard’s Songs of Love and Hate, you’d never find him sipping scotch in the basement of the Matador.
Because, as Robitaille has admitted, this is certainly not a folk album.
Instead, “Palace Blues” is the most ambitious album Robitaille has ever written. Sure, he recorded the LP in familiar environs—it was captured at Preston, Ontario’s House of Miracles with longtime bassist-guitarist Tavo Diez de Bonilla (Octoberman, Jenn Grant), drummer Marshall Bureau (The Pinecones), keyboardist J.J. Ipsen (Hayden, Jim Guthrie), and horn player-guitarist Andy Magoffin (Raised By Swans, Two Minute Miracles). Studio owner Magoffin also engineered—and the result is JF’s boldest, brassiest, and most accomplished work yet. No small feat.
His whispery vocals still guide the affairs, but with this album, he lets his arrangements do much of the storytelling. Take, for instance, the melancholic “December Moon,” where Robitaille nearly lets his lyrics fall into the background, instead letting rollicking guitars and nocturnal organs paint a picture. Or “Missing You,” where he taps Canadian indie-rock mainstay Julie Doiron (Eric’s Trip) to add bright dabs of vocal colour to his detached delivery.
Not that “Palace Blues” is a fully extroverted affair. As ever, it’s still a window into Robitaille’s psyche, and as ever, his universe is fraught with complexity. “Radio,” for instance, is built around a sunny chord progression and sprightly organ, but dig a little deeper, and it’s balanced with a worldly weariness that’d make Neil Young proud (JF has, after all, called Montreal, Toronto, New York, and countless hotel rooms home). On “Murder,” Robitaille grapples with the raw fallout of an extinguished romance. And “Palace Blues” subtle maturity might be best defined on “Love Songs for the Lonely,” where, atop gold-spun acoustics, Robitaille sings, “Fairy tales don’t move me like they used to.” Us either.
More than anything, this album is about transition—no, he may not buy into picture-book romance, but Robitaille was a one-time believer. He’s an ideologue at his core, but he’s not gullible. He’s an introspect, but he’s earned the patina that only comes with countless passport stamps. And musically, he’s not Canada’s answer to Bob Dylan or Nick Drake—he’s J.F. Robitaille, and he’s delivered his most actualized album yet.