Roberts shows, time and again, there’s life in the old songs yet.
Chris Parkin 2012
Whether he puts his considerable talent to writing wordy, traditional-styled ballads or performing centuries-old folksongs dealing in X-rated murder and infanticide, Alasdair Roberts’ albums are nearly always timeless affairs. Take the Scottish treasure’s third and sixth albums, No Earthly Man (2005) and Too Long in This Condition (2010): they contain mostly traditional songs but are mesmerising in their otherworldliness, their stories casting the same foreboding shadow that they would have done in times when savagery was rather more pronounced.
Roberts channels stories so intensely it’s as if this wraith-like figure ghosts between the centuries and knows the experience behind them. Roberts says he prevents his albums from becoming heritage projects by picking songs that strike a chord and then contemporising them – it’s cathartic, he explains. But Roberts’ two most recent projects have put in danger his claim that he’s not just trying to protect the past. Last year he curated a terrific compilation of Alan Lomax’s Scottish folksong recordings, Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree (Drag City); and here teams up with Mairi Morrison for an album of ‘lost’ Gaelic songs.
The idea that this is just folksong salvaging is nixed, however, on a first listen of Urstan. It sounds so exciting that it must be relevant – whatever the (mostly) Gaelic-language ballads and work songs are about. The album sprung from a meeting between Highlands-raised Roberts, who’s often to be found seeking out stories and songs at Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies, and Isle of Lewis-born Gaelic singer Morrison at Glasgow’s Gaelic arts-promoting Ceol’s Craic club. The payoff, which includes two original songs, is invigorating.
Forget austere, bleak, slavishly traditional renditions – this is Roberts and Morrison we’re talking about. These love and ‘waulking’ songs – one of them originally sung by women weaving tweed – are expansive, joyful, mysterious things. Làrach do Thacaidean is a swinging, rhythmic riot of percussive voices, harmonica, skittering drums and a groovily looping guitar lick; elsewhere there’s jazzy bass and playful, swelling arrangements for wind and string played by Scottish nu-folk royalty, including a member of Trembling Bells. Roberts’ sprightly guitar work is almost swallowed by swirls of colour, and his fragile voice is looser than ever, twisting around his Gaelic teacher’s own beautiful voice.
These sublime songs come from the UK – albeit from the very far northwest of Scotland – and yet Urstan sounds as exotic and entrancing as any wildly acclaimed world-music album released in the past few years. And as Roberts shows, time and again, there’s life in the old songs yet.