Alasdair Roberts

The Fiery Margin

Deep time and restive present smash against each other in the latest from reborn medieval hedge preacher Alasdair Roberts, finds Tom Bolton

The prolific Alasdair Roberts sets the standards for others to follow. As his body of work accretes, layer by layer, it becomes denser, richer and more rewarding to the listener. The title of his new album, The Fiery Margin, could be the label for his whole musical approach. He preaches urgently and irresistibly from the edges of culture, playing in the remaining few small clubs and pubs that have kept their back rooms. The message reaches only a small number, but they do not forget what they have heard.

Roberts often sounds as though he is channelling something beyond his control as a stream of archaic, mesmerising language flows from his tongue. He is a medieval hedge preacher reincarnated.

The Fiery Margin is an album – no means the first from Roberts – that sounds so confident it is hard to believe its songs are new. They sound strange, perhaps off-putting if you’re not expecting this stuff, but bewitching if you are prepared to trust the man and his guitar. Not many 21st century singers begin a track with “In January as it befell / I lay dumbfounded in my weather-bound cell”; nor do they call it ‘The Evernew Tongue’, nor release it as the single from their new album. For Roberts, this makes sense. The track, quietly powered by rumbling drums and weaving strings, promises redemption of some kind: “Every song that nevermore sun / will sound again upon the evernew tongue”. It could be a parable for our times, with a reassuring perspective that sees across ages with a glance. The next track ‘Europe’, adds to the sense that The Fiery Margin is refocusing the travails of our time as mere episodes in a tale that has been unravelling for centuries. That it sounds like an extract from The Pilgrim’s Progress is remarkable, but the ideas of exile, change and individuals at the mercy of power all resonate.

Roberts has made some startling albums in his career, but this is right at the top of the tree. It ranges from ranter wisdom (‘A False Flesh’) via wry comedy (‘Actors’) to rolling ballads full of mysterious truth. For example, ‘Learning is Eternal’, which sees him declaring “Every living age has cause to mourn and to blame their ill-begetters / Great shame if all the born unbound should have to die in fetters”.

The instrumentation here is delicate and varied: a rough-edged guitar over soft backing vocals on ‘A Keen’, or music hall sax on ‘The Stranger with the Scythe’ to a more sweeping, even epic sound. ‘Europe’ even has lingering hints of ‘Journey of the Sorcerer’, Bernie Leadon’s song which was the theme to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

From first note to last, The Fiery Margin is a recording that exudes complete confidence. Roberts is at the height of his powers, connecting to many other musicians but occupying a place of his own. His career is increasingly a delight to experience. By making entirely original music that is recognisably rooted in traditions – Scottish, Irish, English – while sounding like nothing else, he is achieving something special. The Fiery Margin is an album for our times, layering the deep past over the restive present to reveal it as mere vanity which, like everything, will pass.

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