Nashville born and raised, troubadour Luke Roberts is an artist with a real story to tell. A singer steeped in the classic traditions of Americana and southern blues, his eventful upbringing led to him running away from home to hitch trains and career across the southern states of America with only his friend for company. His appreciation of the spiritual beauty of those classic sounds has given his music a rich warmth which is again expressed excellently on his second album, the rather grandly titled The Iron Gates Of Throop And Newport.
Roberts’ debut Big Bells And Dime Songs was a pleasant, if rather basic, exploration of the more folksy sound of Americana. The Iron Gates Of Throop And Newport sees him taking that sound even further, and his songwriting has developed. The album is far more personal than his debut; perhaps the fact that he relocated from his home of Brooklyn back to his childhood home of Nashville helped to bring out those feelings of struggle that he faced during childhood. Roberts has stated that this engaging and affecting album is about freedom and indeed there is a spiritual theme throughout. The theme of redemption pops up repeatedly; there is a definite inherent sadness to these plaintive and confessional songs.
I Don’t Want You Anymore immediately introduces the confessional style as its languid country lament sees Roberts questioning his place in the world now his lover has left him. Roberts cracked and faltering voice is perfectly suited to these pleading confessionals as he ruefully wonders “I’m sick of the sun, which way should I run?” Much of the album’s loveliest moments are provided by the fiddle of Billy Contraraz, which is heard for the first time here mournfully snaking its way around the plucked guitar.
The addition of the fiddle and mandolin coupled with the backing vocals of Emily Sunbland help to make The Iron Gates… a far more rounded and developed album. The melodies are far more developed and intricate and the album has been lovingly recorded in Nashville by Marky Nevers, these more dextrous arrangements suit a collection of songs that are much broader in scope than before. His Song is a striking song dealing with the idea of religion and spirituality, Roberts is looking for a sense of belonging and dealing with his philosophical dislocations. It is almost hymn-like as its country shuffle gently chugs along aided by a choir and a ragged squalling guitar solo, while Roberts cries “I Wanna Know Where I Belong”. Again Roberts is addled with doubt on the acoustic strum of Will You Be Mine asking “Will anything ever be fine or will you ever be mine?”.
The first half of the album mostly sees Roberts laying bare his innermost deepest emotions but the second half provides some relief with some lighter and more upbeat melodies, most notably on the breezy and carefree Lost On Leaving, Roberts finally seems happy and exuberant because “Everybody is smiling at me” – and an infectious harmonica adds wonderfully to the upbeat feeling. Despite fleeting moments of joy though, the overriding emotion is sad contemplation, and the country blues waltz of Old Fashioned Woman is perhaps the best expression of that emotion over the course of its compelling six minutes.
If there is one criticism that can be made it is that Roberts’ cracked voice is certainly anything but soulful. But in some way its inadequacies add to the intimate emotional feeling as he lets you into his world and his feelings. The Gates Of Throop And Newport is an emotional work, but it is a collection of songs rich in classy Americana and in affecting melodies. A very impressive second album.