It’s four years since Roberts released No Earthly Man, his riveting interpretation of traditional songs, and his stock has risen even higher following the release of 2007’s The Amber Gatherers. For those new to Roberts, imagine a Scottish version of Will Oldham and you will be part of the way to understanding the kind of music on show here.
Great artist though he is, Oldham can’t shake a stick at Roberts when it comes to the sheer literary impact of the lyrical vision. This is dense, metaphorical writing of a kind rarely found these days, and Spoils is an album to live with over several weeks before the purpose becomes clear and the stories within begin to unravel their questioning of organised religion and traditional beliefs.
Roberts’ examination of faith and religion is laid out on the allusive opening track, The Flyting Of Grief And Joy (Eternal Return), with “Jericho and Babylon eternally returning”. The spare guitar/bass/drums set up allows Roberts’ rich Scottish brogue to shine. His voice is a thing of primal beauty that should be piped into shopping malls on repeat for the good of our nation.
There is a clarity of musical and lyrical vision here that is rarely found in modern music. You Muses Assist is a very modern call to arms that benefits from the industrial grit of the clanging electric guitar that chimes throughout.
Lest this album sound very high-faluting, Roberts is not above a series of earthy revelations. So Bored Was I finds him revisiting his teen years when he ejaculated into an old mash tun. Unyoked Oxen Turn also reveals a wicked sense of humour and a welcome humanity on an album that at times borders on the impenetrable.
The Book Of Doves and Ned Ludd’s Rant are knotty, allusive tracks that need to be listened to several times before their meaning becomes apparent. Girls Aloud this isn’t, with the vision of “the cosmos desacrelised and the land rebarbarised”, but the free jazz drums and scorching electronics of the latter roots the track in a very modern idiom.
Hazel Forks and the closing Under No Enchantment (But My Own) find Roberts achieving an epiphany of sorts in the rhythms of the natural world, but the spindly electric guitar in the former asserts that this is a songwriter equally at home in searching out new ways of reinterpreting old traditions.
Some folk fans run a mile from Alasdair Roberts, put off by his heavy accent and impenetrable lyrics. This is a great shame, as this guy is one of our primary songwriters and deserves to be heard by anyone with an interest in the future of music.