Too Long In This Condition
, August 23rd, 2010 12:40
Some 13 years after he began making music, still relatively little is known about Alasdair Roberts; his online presence is minimal, to say the least, perhaps due to a profound disdain for modernity. Any self-promotion clearly takes a backseat to his self-effacing determination to perfect the art of traditional music. Going about his unassuming business, he has created a meticulously lovely fifth album.
Too Long In This Condition is, like Roberts' back catalogue, an exercise in folk scholarship. He acts merely as an arranger and conduit for this morbid, poignant and witty selection of folk ballads, the oldest of which date back to the 17th century and the most well known being the much-recorded 'Barbara Allen'. The lyrics to Roberts' own songs suggest the existential misery of someone who might bemoan that the industrial revolution ever happened, while Wittgenstein's ruminations on death are quoted in the sleeve notes here. In the song 'Little Sir Hugh', over sparse and meandering acoustic guitar, Roberts tells the story of a Jewish child murdering a Christian child, to reveal the evils of, in his words (in really quite extensive liner notes), “the so-called civilised world”. Indeed crime and punishment crop up frequently on this record, even if the music accompanying it is often full of tempo and colourful folk instrumentation, with Ozark harp, lutherzither and cajon all on show.
Other highlights include the majestic opener 'The Daemon Lover', which Roberts turns from a two-verse fragment of an old ballad into a veritable opus with creeping strings, harmonies and distinct sections. 'Long Larkin' has a bluesy touch pleasingly reminiscent of Pentangle, while the album's best track must be 'The Burning of Auchindoun', which in its macabre drone and percussion, veers closest to what Roberts produced on Spoils.
The only thing the record lacks then, is the electricity of Roberts' own songwriting, yet this is replaced by his skills as an arranger, which are considerable. Firstly, his singular talent as a guitarist makes these songs moodier, with added personality – a finer finger-picker you will not find. And secondly, Roberts' band is sublime, and in a trick he perhaps learned from Will Oldham, he has invited a rustic, homely female voice, Emily Portman, to accompany him throughout.
Striking too is the geographical fixing of this record. Aside from the broad Stirling brogue he sings in, nearly all of these songs have Caledonian origins. While attracting plaudits from all over the world, Roberts is a firmly localised singer, something that gives him a kinship with Northumbrian artist Kathryn Tickell. It is fitting that Alasdair Roberts' new album coincides with the return to live action of Nic Jones, for one has to look as far back as Jones and his 1980 album Penguin Eggs to find work that matches Roberts' combination of reverence for tradition and originality of interpretation. And Too Long In This Condition proves that it is indeed a monstrous miscarriage when the likes of Mumford and Sons stomp their feet a few times and are labelled folk music. Roberts works harder than that, and we are the better for it.