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Alasdair Roberts
Alasdair Roberts Barnaby Smith , February 3rd, 2015 14:17

Over the course of what is now eight albums, there is not really an Alasdair Roberts release that can be regarded as particularly personal. The lyrically gifted, instrumentally dextrous Scot is adept at musing, using his uniquely anachronistic poetry, on ideology, history, society, community and even things like work and family. But any notion of confession has rarely made its way into his extraordinary oeuvre. His 'I' and the wonderful Roberts 'we' are pretty much consistently shadowy, abstract characters in often obscure narratives, whether he is singing his own or traditional songs.

You'd be forgiven, though, for approaching this album under the impression that some barrier had come down and that Roberts had produced something unusually revelatory. After all, it is over 20 years into his recording career that he has made a self-titled album, opted for a sketched illustration of his hirsute bird-like features on the cover and, according to an interview on these pages, made the album in a fairly spontaneous way without particular forethought to its thematic paths – a method that arguably may not yield his impassioned social commentary or sense of the epic, as heard on his last solo album A Wonder Working Stone.  

This however, does not seem to be the case. Yes, there is an new intimacy that comes of the loose production (many tracks feel like fleshed-out sketches), the brevity of the songs and the fact Roberts' voice warbles as movingly as ever, but still, these songs appear to be stories, episodes and images informed by his ongoing immersion in traditional folklore and music. If his own life has made it on to this LP, as actually suggested in the aforementioned interview, it is hazily, to say the least.

Less gothic and mysterious than A Wonder Working Stone, The Amber Gatherers or the still-magnificent Spoils, Alasdair Roberts is a record about the world, and begins with an elegant paean to womankind in 'The Way Unfavoured', a song that trills along with its flutes and a finger-picked (a strum is a rare thing for this artist), characteristically frisky guitar line. It is one example of what is a peculiar catchiness among these morsels. Roberts is too wordy – though less frantic with his delivery here - to be exactly sing-along, but there is a conciseness that marks a move away even from the fairly skeletal Hirta Songs, his album with poet Robin Robertson. His playing is still majestic, but on songs like 'In Dispraise Of Hunger' (a song with beautiful Waterson-esque backing vocals) he creates riffs and arrangements that are surprisingly uncomplicated, while 'The Final Diviner' is almost nursery rhyme-like in its simplicity.

This is a feature of the album's finest track, one that stands up to nearly everything he has done. The remarkable 'Artless One' is comparable with songs such as The Amber Gatherers' 'River Rhine' in its romantic explorations, and is a better song. Roberts is joined on 'Artless One' by Olivia Chaney on keys and vocals, while accompaniment from Alex South's clarinet adds a baroque loveliness to the most affecting melody on the album, enhanced by such lines as "Now lovers lay their will to rest and may their gladness manifest / So you and I are darkly blessed as is the way of lovers."

Alasdair Roberts is not quite the equal of Spoils in terms of songwriting and is hardly as colourful as A Wonder Working Stone, but it is perhaps his most relaxed and effortless album to date. It is a rare talent – one who is now bordering on auteur territory - who can relate folk music with such scholarly authenticity, and penetrate on such an emotional level at the same time.

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