Alasdair Roberts writes songs about love and death. Love and death and all the paths, clear and obscure, that lead between those two cornerstones of human understanding and mystery. His latest release, A Wonder Working Stone, is a conceptually ambitious confluence of these and other metaphysically pertinent themes that can be traced back to his early releases as Appendix Out and further through the oral traditions of centuries.
‘My writing on these subjects,’ Roberts tells me, ‘is very much influenced by an immersion in, and love of, traditional balladry and song, where such things are treated in this ostensibly ‘universal’ and ‘archetypal’ fashion – human relationships appear to be stripped to their most basic, core elements on those songs, and that’s something that has appealed to me a lot.’
Roberts is a prolific songwriter – despite half of his solo output being ‘traditional’ material – and the majority of the words on the new record are his own. But his concerns are wider, more universal, than those of the average troubadour. The prevailing trend for singer-songwriters, even within a so-called folk idiom, seems to be towards the confessional, the personal and the autobiographical. Roberts eschews this: ‘I’m not so comfortable about revealing those kinds of things to a wider listening public and on another level I’m hopefully not so conceited as to think that anyone would give a damn about those aspects of my existence! So instead I strive more for a kind of universality, for something into which the listener can enter personally by virtue of it being free from the autobiographical trappings of the author.’
The temptation remains to read autobiographical meaning into new songs such as ‘Gave the Green Blessing’ (the tale of a relationship gone bad) and ‘The End of Breeding’ (full of death knells, literal and metaphorical). We, as listeners, are used to confessional songwriting: we have been conditioned to decode songs as manifestations of a songwriter’s personality or ego. We risk missing the point if we listen to Roberts’ songs in that way. His concerns are loftier. Well, perhaps not loftier, but less constrained by time and by individuality: more overarching.
What comes across on A Wonder Working Stone, as much as the depth of the subject matter, is the joyful, playful use of language. Roberts delights in making clever patterns of words fit into ancient stanzaic constraints, rhyming ‘conundrum’ with ‘humdrum’ in ‘The Wheels of the World’, whilst in ‘The End of Breeding’ ‘a crowd of mendicants… make their calendrical amendments’ to the tune of Robert Tannahill’s ‘Are Ye Sleepin’ Maggie?’
This combination of verbal exuberance, thematic cohesion and adherence to the old tunes seems to represent a logical end to the recent string of recordings that includes Spoils, The Wyrd Meme and the traditional Too Long in This Condition. Was this a conscious decision?
‘The way I see it is that my own writing has drawn heavily on traditional song forms, from Scotland and beyond, but when writing my own material I am not attempting to write ‘folk songs’ as such – they’re more like ‘art songs’ with obvious nods to traditional song. I have come to view the traditional song culture of this country in which I live, Scotland, as one of the bedrocks of my own writing, and I’d like to see that continuing as my work develops. Thematically, words that I’ve been using to describe the songs on this record are ‘cosmological’ and ‘metaphysical’ – that’s cosmological in the sense that’s more about ‘primitive’ conceptions and symbologies of the workings of the universe rather than in a modern, scientific sense of the term – so more about symbols like the ourobouros, the world tree/axis mundi, the cosmogonic egg and so on, and what these symbols and concepts can mean both personally and universally. And metaphysical in the sense that the term might have been applied to certain English poets of 500 years ago – about things beyond the mundane and quotidian, things beyond time but still deeply human.’ Things like the aforementioned love and death.
Alongside the cosmological and the metaphysical, the love and the death, there is another facet to this record: a distinctly political side that sees Roberts attempting, in his words, to ‘address the realities of the world and the situation in the country in which I live.’ But even these topical songs steer clear from presenting an overtly personal agenda. Universality is again the key, and a keen understanding of history that entwines the songs in the folk tradition: songs that are not concerned with creating a manifesto or espousing an individual standpoint but with ‘basic human suffering.’
Don’t let the whole human suffering thing mislead you though. The record is full of warmth, spirit and lightheartedness, most notably on ‘Song Composed in December,’ in which Roberts represents his preference for internationalism over nationalism by including an English morris tune, an Irish melody, a nod to Robert Burns in the title and even a Welsh rap. Yup, that’s right: a Welsh-language rap on an ostensibly Scottish folk record.
But, as Roberts is keen to point out, his Scottish roots are complimented by a large dash of German lineage (he was born in Swabia) as well as a light dusting of English, so there is nobody better qualified to embody a refreshingly inclusive viewpoint in song. Even South America gets a nod on ‘Brother Seed’ (the obligatory incest song) by way of an Argentine percussion instrument made of shrunken goat’s hooves.
A Wonder Working Stone is a folk album, that much is obvious, and it draws on some of our earliest traditional song for inspiration. But Alasdair Roberts’ songs have never sounded like exercises in conservation and his latest collection is the perfect example of how a genre with tangible links to the past need not stagnate. In fact, Roberts, with his substantial and consistently excellent body of work, provides an object lesson in how music can progress and grow in both density and clarity as a result of the dialogue between the traditional and contemporary.
And what of the enigmatic title? ‘Ah, the concept of the wonder-working stone is a Jungian thing,’ says Roberts, although his own conception of the idea connects it with love: something that is ‘paradoxically simple and complex.’ Much like the record in many respects: simple, complex, enthralling and important.
A Wonder Working Stone by Alasdair Roberts and Friends is out on January 21st 2013 on Drag City
Words: Thomas Blake