Over the past dozen years or so, Alasdair Roberts has quietly maneuvered his way into the light as one of the most salient and sapient folk musicians today. Originally the leader of his own variably-staffed group, Appendix Out, Roberts had the good fortune of counting Will Oldham among his earliest fans, gaining him a much-deserved leg up at Palace Records and, later, Drag City. After three Appendix Out records, four solo, and one super-folk collaboration (the Amalgamated Sons of Rest EP with Will Oldham and Jason Molina), we have arrived at his fifth solo record, Spoils, which easily ranks among his best.The early interplay between the warm tones of piano, bass, and Roberts’ gently jangling guitar in the album’s opening song, “The Flyting of Grief & Joy (Eternal Return)”, lays exquisite groundwork for the other, ‘flashier’ attributes of the album: Its density of lyric delivered through Roberts’ winsome, pastoral Scottish warble, its discerning arrangements flecked with instruments of antiquity (in “Flyting’s” case, harpsichord and viol), and its classicist nature, which we and presumably its author can only experience through the prism of modernity. Of course, it’s a little easier for Roberts, who grew up in rural Scotland and now, even living in Glasgow, remains considerably closer to the ancient and enchanted moors and mountains of his ancestral landscapes. Yet while a primer on Scottish Christian lore and geography might help us stateside xenophobes keep up, the music, the sentiment, and the familiar words between references are more than enough to engage, if not fully ensnare, the listener, sweeping us right “up the shale and down the scree” along with it.
The olden sound and spirit of the album runs reliably throughout, although it’s by no means a purist affair; there are a couple artfully executed seconds of background guitar noise and a bit of synthesizer tucked into the mix, all with great and subtle effect. Though the proof was unnecessary, these higher-tech details do offer some proof of the album’s “grounded-ness” in the midst of such highfalutin additions as 19th century and baroque guitars, dulcimer, and hurdy gurdy (an antiquated sort of mechanical violin with strings “bowed” from underneath by a built-in rotating wheel controlled by a crank). “The Book of Doves” sports the latter three of these instruments for a gorgeously mysterious recounting of the passage through time of a certain medieval manuscript—probably fictional, but with Roberts and his depth of historical fascination, one never knows. Only Roberts, after all, would rhyme “mammon” (a medieval personification of greed) with “Slamannan” (a rural Scottish village roughly 30 miles away from the equally remote one in which the songwriter grew up) with apparent natural ease. The lyrics do also start with a sort of Q&A with the Irish St. Columba, who, in the mid-6th century, waged the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne over a copy he made of a psalter (a volume of Psalms, hymns from which are traditionally played on a harp called a psaltery, which Roberts actually plays in the following song on the album), then as penance, exiled himself to Scotland as a missionary to convert as many people as were killed in the battle. In but four-and-a-half minutes, “The Book of Doves” culminates twice; first in lush, hurdy-gurdied swells like a storm at sea, and again a moment later through the powerful plucked intricacy of classical acoustic guitar interplay. Either one of these moments is easily enough to make any listener feel beckoned toward some ancestral horizon; both make for a brilliant high water mark of the album.
Following “Doves” is another intense passage, “Ned Ludd’s Rant (For a World Rebarbarised)”, a profound and surprisingly disquieting addition that deftly emphasizes the indelible musical bridge between the Old World and its migratory cultural outcroppings in Appalachia and the American West. Featuring Roberts on psaltery and backed by 19th century guitar and viol, it underscores Roberts’ place among current folk peers such as Oldham and fellow high-brow lyricist Joanna Newsom, while the lyrics possibly set him aside, articulating a seriousness of purpose in his use of classical instruments and language. The reference to Ned Ludd signifies an animosity towards modern technology, or industry, and in this case, perhaps also the modern culture that embraces it all so fully. Ludd was the symbolic figurehead of the Luddites, who, during the Industrial Revolution, comprised a social movement against the mechanization that was replacing human labor, costing jobs and other cultural and socioeconomic problems. In the song, the singer seems to take issue with an affliction not necessarily labor-related but more grandiose, lamenting cosmos “desacralized,” observing how “we’ve seen the death of wonder; now we rob grave robbers’ graves and redisplay the plunder…” Its anger builds, culminating in a finger pointed squarely at “you haters, you whores and fornicators: Prepare to be undone.” A stern warning, a startling premonition, an in-character out-lashing of typical Christian doom and guilt (with atypical musical beauty); whatever the case, it rattles the otherwise placid basket of Spoils.
Studious though it helps to be to get to the root of Roberts’ lyric poetry, no OED is necessary for the album’s most immediate beguiler, “You Muses Assist”, with its casually charming flutes and jubilant tune, or to enjoy the jangly, electric rock guitar solo about halfway through “Hazel Forks”—a Palace Records-worthy moment if ever there was one, with a more Scottish-style bridge at the other end. Altogether, Spoils is an album of multifaceted rewards; a beautiful and instantly gratifying listen, at once sparse and full, challenging to the intellect and easy on the ear.
by Howard Wyman crawdaddy.wolfgangsvault