Eight albums into his solo career, Alasdair now delivers a fresh set of original compositions that by virtue of its unduly modest, blandly eponymous titling stands in danger of being overlooked except by those in the know. Which would be a real pity, for it’s a distinctly charming collection: warm, intimate and perfectly approachable. Its eponymity is, apparently, a reference to the artist having achieved, in Jungian terms, complete “individuation”; and there’s certainly an air of quiet confidence (the very opposite of arrogance) and near-contentment about Alasdair’s performance. Following a period of busy collaboration, involving not only those artistically satisfying album projects Urstan (with singer Maírí Morrison) and Hirta Songs (with poet Robin Robertson), two albums of strictly traditional balladry and numerous appearances on other folks’ records, this new solo release follows swiftly on the heels of 2013’s A Wonder Working Stone, on which Alasdair deployed 13 musician friends to realise a sequence of complex, ambitious and often lengthy creations. To which it forms virtually a complete contrast, its 10 songs a model of conciseness, economy of structure and sparse simplicity. They were recorded almost by chance, when Alasdair found himself left with having booked studio time for a cancelled project, laying down these new songs first as demos. But there’s no sense of the songs – or these performances – feeling anything but fully formed.
Here, Alasdair proves himself to be a songmaker in the true sense of the word, taking copious cues from tradition not only in the expression of ideas, lore and metaphysical concepts but also in the area of the tunes he creates to clothe his intriguing and often decidedly cryptic lyrics. In the accompanying booklet, Alasdair helpfully and candidly outlines those instances where a melody “is partly extrapolated from”, “bears some resemblance to”, “takes as its starting point”, “is related to” “is loosely based on”, “is inspired by” or “shares some traits in common with” that of a specific, named traditional song (of which it may carry a strong resonance). However, Alasdair’s known penchant for dour murder ballads and his preoccupation with morose affairs of mortality would appear to have been banished from the room for this session, for these new songs and their settings are positively chirpy in demeanour (almost cheerful!), and couched in a gentle yet resolute optimism and a warm sense of fellowship.
Textures may be comparatively sparse, but the effect is anything but barren, due to Alasdair’s full-toned yet nifty and dextrous fingerstyle guitar playing, its delightful, ever-so-slightly wayward gestures closely focused and superbly captured. There’s also guest contributions from vocal quartet Crying Lion, whose members add felicitous, florid Incredible String Band-inspired harmonies to just two of the songs (Artless One and In Dispraise Of Hunger); while a goodly measure of attractive instrumental enhancement is provided by Alex South (fruity, snoopy clarinets) and Donald Lindsay (plangent tin whistles) in addition to Alasdair’s own selective overdubs (electric guitar, organ, etc.). The latter sometimes project rather a strange, compressed quality, seemingly recorded in what sounds like a separate, tinny lo-fi acoustic with a less clean perspective, making them sound a touch alien, even mildly disorienting; having said that, this only adds to the homespun charm and engaging nature of the record.
And all this despite a more than intermittent quality of impenetrability that pervades Alasdair’s lyrics, which may appear to reference some obscure folklore and superstition but with a source and/or rationale that can’t be easily pinned down; they repay careful scrutiny, but it’s all too easy to underestimate their depth by becoming instantly beguiled by the engaging sprightliness and crisply tripping backdrops (you could say Hurricane Brown and The Final Diviner even approach dancing!), by the delicious burr of Alasdair’s accent and the lovingly articulated, elongated syllables intimately caressing the wonderfully twisting entwinery of his melodic contours, the onward progression of which can seem wilfully eccentric. Essential commonplaces of the human condition are examined with original expressive insight in this latest batch of songs, their compulsively simple structures as often as not offset by their tantalising, more than a tad unfathomable brand of poetical language. They may deal with life’s inevitable cycle, or else universal matters of the heart (the decorous, invitingly sexy lover’s come-on Artless One and the poignant, pained lament of unrequited love This Uneven Thing), or the eternal riddles of human behaviour (Honour Song, The Problem Of Freedom), or express our farewell to this world and our legacy to mankind (Roomful Of Relics).
In summary, Alasdair has produced an album that through its instantly recognisable personal styling makes virtue of economy of expression and conjures, through its own uniquely relaxed, quiet and inclusive intimacy, an earthly and worldly – and yet almost unearthly and otherworldly – magic, of a very special kind.
Review by: David Kidman
Folk Radio UK Present:
Folk Radio UK will be hosting an evening with Alasdair Roberts in Somerset at Bridgwater Art Centre on 27 March 2015 8:00pm. This is part of our ongoing Levels Collective events so please come along and spread the word. You can get your tickets for the night here.
A solo UK tour begins at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in Birmingham on 26th February and continues through the month of March. A full list of Alasdair tour dates can be found on his website here: www.alasdairroberts.com/live/