Now seven albums into his solo career (eight if you include last year’s splendid collaboration with Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison), Alasdair Roberts ought by now to be a revered statesman of modern folk music. That he remains appreciated only by a limited cognoscenti is frustrating.
His long playing recordings tend to alternate between collections of traditional Scottish folk songs (The Crook Of My Arm, No Earthly Man, Too Long In This Condition) and collections of his own tangled, elaborate originals (Farewell Sorrow, The Amber Gatherers, Spoils). A Wonder Working Stone falls into the latter camp, although it so liberally borrows from the folk canon in an act of imaginative plunder. Rarely have heritage, tradition and innovation been so deeply entwined.
Roberts always approaches his work with diligence, due reverence and attention to detail. A Wonder Working Stone in some ways feels like the logical conclusion of many of the developments in his recent music. As the ‘Friends’ billing implies, it’s a lively ensemble recording that contrasts with the more sombre reflectiveness of his solo work, although it largely eschews the more radical, free spirited sound of 2009’s outstanding Spoils. As well as the often searing presence of Ben Reynolds’ electric guitar, there are some superbly realised arrangements that incorporate brass and strings. A Wonder Working Stone is by some distance Roberts’ longest work to date, with the songwriting process here resulting in some turbulent and thrilling segues. Some of these changes feel like abrupt shifts, others seem more like considered transitions. Many of these pieces feel more like miniature folk suites than individual songs.
It’s a brave move, given that the resulting narratives are dense, allusive and difficult to navigate. Roberts’ lyrics are at their most latticed and ingenious, clever wordplay often justifying the use of arcane language or mythology in a contemporary setting. The worlds conjured by Roberts often feel elaborate and brilliantly enlivened, but also strange and alien to modern ears, not least on the sprawling, heady and intoxicating The Wheels Of The World/The Conundrum. The concluding round, which seems to add layer upon layer until it suffocates, is particularly striking.
Roberts’ endearingly fragile voice has rarely sounded this confident and communicative. Whilst even Roberts’ lustiest choruses are imbued with understanding, commitment and personal authority, it’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that this album is best when a degree of stillness, reflection and subtlety are the main characteristics. The End Of Breeding is particularly sublime, passing through a range of moods whilst sustaining a consistent darkness. Fusion Of Horizons is also remarkably evocative and well structured, with some of Reynolds’ most expressive and unshackled guitar playing. Many of these protracted, idea-rich pieces are long enough to include numerous highly effective contrasts between bright and dark, loud and quiet, minimal and expansive.
For all this careful structuring and arrangement, there is still a liberated looseness at the core of the ensemble playing. Although it rarely sounds as untethered as Spoils, A Wonder Working Stone still has a sense of spontaneous wonder beneath the meticulous organisation of the compositions. It is this that makes the music feel so brilliantly alive in spite of its lineage and history.
A Wonder Working Stone also shows a keen awareness of the dark heart of the folk tradition that Roberts both sustains and ceaselessly remoulds in his own image. The yearning ballad about incest and a song of tribute to the victims of the Highland clearances. The superb opening track is entitled The Merry Wake, and playfully turns death into a celebratory affair. The perpetual litany of destruction that ends The Wheels Of The World is also curiously uplifting. This is comfortably Roberts’ most colourful recording and, whilst it retains the hypnotic quality of his delivery, also takes another significant step in his development a living, breathing artist going well beyond the curation of folk traditions.