Such is the prolific rate of Alasdair Roberts’ output it only feels like yesterday that I last sat down to review one of his new albums, but such is the range of his talent that it never feels like a chore. Hot on the heels of last year’s releases with James Green and The Furrow Collective, Pangs sees Roberts return, in name at least, to something resembling the folk-rock frontman/songwriter format that brought him success with albums like Spoils and A Wonder Working Stone. But, as always with Roberts, nothing is ever quite that simple. Pangs is very much a collaborative endeavour.
Roberts has been touring with the equally fecund Alex Neilson (drums) and Stevie Jones (bass) as the Alasdair Roberts Trio for a while now, and these three form the musical base of the new record. The well-honed chemistry between them has helped to produce a collection of songs that are tighter and more incisive than practically anything else in Roberts’ massive back catalogue. The title track is typical Roberts – what sounds like a traditional ballad form is updated with lyrical concerns that stretch into the future as well as the past. The story is basically that of the messianic return of a rightful ruler to a downtrodden land. Given Robert’s Scottish ancestry it is tempting to find links with the prodigal heroes of Caledonia’s past (Rob Roy, Bonnie Prince Charlie). Equally, it takes no great imaginative leap to see the song as an impassioned plea for future independence. And while both interpretations may be true to some extent, Roberts has always been more interesting than that: both subtler and more universal.
And on this album subtlety and universality – the personal and the globally profound – are juggled with particular proficiency. No Dawn Song is Roberts at his most personal, recalling the songs and dreams of his childhood, while An Altar In The Glade embarks on an archetypal tale of a deer and its hunter. Roberts is well-read in Jungian psychology, and it shows in vastly different ways in these two songs. As usual, there are too many overarching and interlinked themes to attempt to unpick them all in a handful of listens, but with Jung in mind there seem to be plenty of references to the liminal states between dreaming and waking, and the apparently contradictory states of childhood and childlessness.
But there has always been more to Roberts than cold academics. The Angry Laughing God, its lyrical concerns aside, is a merry romp, carried along by nimble, cascading guitars (both acoustic and electric). Wormwood And Gall takes great delight in its portentous chorus and Neilson’s bristling percussion. The Downward Road is full of gleeful chirrups and whoops, synth bleeps that don’t feel at all out of place amongst the clatter of folk-rock instrumentation. The album’s glorious conclusion comes in the form of Song Of The Marvels, an erudite update of the apocalyptic question-and-answer song, a twenty-first-century version of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. It encapsulates what makes Roberts such an important artist: an instinctive feel for the traditional married to a genuinely progressive purview.
Diversity is crucial to an artist as productive as Roberts, and Pangs has it in spades, from the electric guitar solo in the title track to the piano of No Dawn Song to the unexpected delight of the occasional synths. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I have no hesitation in saying it again: this is yet another cracking instalment from one of the finest recording artists currently working in the folk idiom.
Pangs is Out Now on Drag City
ALASDAIR ROBERTS PANGS TRIO UK TOUR 2017
1st EDINBURGH House Concert
2nd GLASGOW The Glad Cafe
5th PRESTON The Continental
15th COVENTRY Warwick Arts Centre
16th HEREFORD The Courtyard
17th CARMARTHEN The Tangled Parrot
18th PLYMOUTH B-Bar
19th SWANSEA Noah’s Yard
21st CHELTENHAM Smokey Joe’s
23rd STROUD Prince Albert
24th BODMIN Folk Club
25th CARDIFF Chapter Arts Centre