Alasdair Roberts: “Spoils”

I have a default rant about the parlous state of most modern British folk which I wheel out here every couple of months or so. Jim Moray and Seth Lakeman are unfailingly indicted, and Alasdair Roberts is held up as the excellent exception which proves the rule. It’s nice, then, to be presented with a new Alasdair Roberts album, “Spoils”, to justify my prejudices.

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I have a default rant about the parlous state of most modern British folk which I wheel out here every couple of months or so. Jim Moray and Seth Lakeman are unfailingly indicted, and Alasdair Roberts is held up as the excellent exception which proves the rule. It’s nice, then, to be presented with a new Alasdair Roberts album, “Spoils”, to justify my prejudices.



Hard to say how many albums Roberts has made, exactly, since his solo career ellides with his previous incarnation as the frontman/sole constant member of Appendix Out. Appendix Out were, so legend has it, discovered by Will Oldham, and Roberts has often been logically pitched as a kind of Caledonian analogue to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, treating his indigenous folk music with the same tough love that Oldham has for the Appalachian tradition (of course on last year’s Scottish folk-tinged “Is It The Sea” you could argue that Oldham was more a Kentucky analogue to Roberts than the other way round, but I digress).

I guess Roberts might be best known for “No Earthly Man”, an exquisitely forlorn and minimal collection of traditional songs. But actually, most of his albums follow a clear path from those early Appendix Out releases (“The Rye Bears A Poison” comes especially recommended, by the way), and “Spoils” is no exception.

For the most part, it finds his wavering, richly accented voice (for anyone labouring under the misapprehension that singing in a Scottish accent automatically means sounding like The Proclaimers or the guy from Glasvegas, Roberts should clear things up) pitted against a spindly guitar/bass/drums set-up and some discreet traditional instrumentation.

Occasionally, the guitar will steal the spotlight – a timely industrial clang in “You Muses Assist”, a charmingly lop-sided electric solo in “Hazel Forks” – or the brilliantly free-sounding, jazzish drums will come to the fore. Mostly, though, “Spoils” revolves around Roberts’ dense, allusive and compelling songs, as he navigates a path between faiths and folklore and ponders, ambiguously enough, the way Christianity and other religions have impacted on his community.

So there are songs tackling St Columba (“The Book Of Doves”), and ones dreaming of a land “desacrelised” and “rebarbarised” (“Ned Ludd’s Rant”). Roberts’ learning and vocabulary is unusual in a songwriter, and occasionally there’s a suspicion that the parameters of a song are being stretched a little too far to accommodate his visions: the “Brought from the Bosphorus/ Died on a cross for us” couplet in “The Book Of Doves” being a case in point.

His metaphysical questing can be bawdy too, though, so that in the fine “So Bored Was I” he comes across his younger self ejaculating in an “old mash tun”. And immensely tender. “Spoils” closes with the tremendous “Under No Enchantment”, a love song of sorts, which vividly traces a courtship through the signifiers of various wild flowers. It reasserts Roberts as a songwriter keenly attuned to landscape, myth and tradition, and simultaneously interested in finding fresh new applications for old tales and symbols. Fresh new applications rooted in much better ideas, of course, than some of his less artful contemporaries. But let’s not start that rant again. . .

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