Drag City 613
Alasdair Roberts’ handsome Stirlingshire voice, ancient new lyrics and honed Bert Jansch-acoustic style make this a pearl of an album, as lost and found love haunts several pieces.
“The Problem of Freedom” takes us through the existential dilemmas of those who find choices a yoke. The uplifting tune of “The Royal Blackbird” is enhanced by the inclusion of tin whistle fills (played by Donald Lindsay). Roberts’ lyrics are a revelation. He achieves the sustained imagery and apparent simplicity of George Herbert with Gerard Manley Hopkins infused internal rhymes like “dandled and tangled.” Traditional techniques with an ancient current effect. “This Uneven Thing,” is a regretful reflection on failed love. This time a clarinet (played by Alex South) forewarns of the “sparrow tangled on the wire” of the third verse to fine effect. Roberts’ lyrical and musical charm is various. His language is also deliberately archaic: “Had I known it before we courted/That love would be this uneven thing.” But these lexical anachronisms give his songs their muscle and grace. “My Artless One,” however is a softly euphoric celebration of love’s gifts. Swelling chorus (provided by Lavninia Blackwall, Harry Campbell, Katy Cooper and Alex Neilson) graceful clarinet fills and the beautifully understated tune make this one of the many high points in this record. Using the influence of traditional melodies such as “The Rigs of Rye” for “Artless One” he has crafted songs which will become new classics. “Artless One” with its sweet tune, charming words and harmonies worthy of the McGarrigle sisters is a soaring delight with the repeated invocation “To go beneath the covers.”
The clean guitar picking, tin whistle choruses and the gentle tune of “Biscay-O” make “The Way Unfavoured” a gallus opening track. Roberts’ take on pointless warfare is clearly expressed in the uplifting and tuneful “The Final Diviner” and the desire for us to ‘lay the toys of warfare down / Break any law that would restrict us’. Based on the tune of “Heather Down the Moor,” it also features one of the epic figures and mystical landscapes who seem to feature in Roberts’ work. In “The Mossy Shrine” “My heart was waiting on the frontier” and he draws round his shoulders a Miltonic “mantle / Of the wandering stars aligned.” “Hurricane Brown” based on “Willie’s Ghost” is a jigging tune punctuated with beautiful minor key harmonies. It takes us on a whirlwind tour of worlds and wishes with the heartbreaking lines: “But she needs no protection/my never-born daughter/ She’s holding before her the best of all futures.” “Honour Song” invokes another hero or anti hero doomed through hedonism.
“In Dispraise of Hunger” is reminiscent of Steeleye Span in both the delivery and harmony structures of the choruses and dirge like repetition of what is in fact a cheery tribute to man’s vulnerability. They are alternated with the sinister oboe rattling impending starvation. Its sensibility reminds me of The Band’s desperate anthem “King Harvest” but this time we hear of the Lammas, Harvest, Lent and Nollaig punctuating the working people’s surfeit and lack.
The closing song “Roomful of Relics” influenced by “Farewell to the Creeks” and “Mrs. MacDonald of Dunecht” sets out his artistic store. With a tune played on acoustic, penny whistle and electric. “The men have withdrawn and left me alone/Left me alone in a roomful of relics.” But he has been left with a song; “so I carry the song/ I carry the song that all men inherit.” Modestly performed and deceptively simple, his song is a gift we can only feel grateful that he’s chosen to pass it on to us.
Alasdair Roberts’ work is pure of spirit, and carved from the finest materials. Do yourself a favor and listen!
— Rosa Redoz