Alasdair Roberts, from the recesses of the alternative Glasgow music scene, has grown steadily and inevitably in stature. As a modern folk magus, he sings old songs as though they were new, and writes new songs as though he had unearthed them carved into granite by ancient, nameless hands. His discography has been a secret, enduring pleasure - eight albums of intensely felt, intellectually rigorous, beautiful songs, delivered in a traditional style that sounds exceptionally fresh. He sings them solo, on tiny stages and back rooms across the country, stepping from the crowd with his guitar to leave listeners transported, rooted to the pub carpet. He also sings with a string of collaborators - the ‘& Friends’ of his previous release, A Wonder Working Stone - who lay colour and texture under his reedy voice and dancing acoustic guitar.
Pangs, long-awaited, at least among Roberts’ many fans, is a mature work, in which exceptional songs are given room to breathe, lovingly worked upon by musicians including Alex Neilson of Trembling Bells, serial Scottish guitarist Stevie Jones, and a parade of Glasgow-based instrumentalists. The result is a classic of its kind.
The title track, which opens the album, has the eerie familiarity of a song that must, surely, have been written in the 17th, not the 21st century. It is a lament for a future that only awaits: “the day our king comes o’er the border”. With Roberts kneading a communal lament, the sorrowful melody, over a deep, funeral procession bassline and muffled snare drums suggests a death march that can never end. The opening verse:
“Friend of mine, come in to dine // and drink with me now times are harder // bitter nuts and sour wine // and all we find within the larder”,
sets a dismal tone, and the abdication of responsibility for change to the king who will never arrive becomes a direct reflection of our political culture as democratic lights go out across the Western world. However, not all is gloom, and the glory of Pangs comes in its gorgeous shifts of tone – from despair to ecstasy. On ‘An Altar the Glade’ a pair of scurrying acoustic guitar echo each other across a sinister yet bouncy woodland parable, complete with barking dog. ‘The Breach’ rolls around a fiddle melody worthy of Dave Swarbrick in early ‘70s Fairport Convention.
Elsewhere, cheerfulness levels reach new heights, with a Morris tune threatening to become a boogie on ‘The Angry Laughing God’, and ‘The Downward Road’ bringing a folk-rocking abandon to particularly arcane lyrics: “Sparrows twelve were the birds he moulded // moulded of the living clay”, telling a tale of creation and morality worthy of a treatise on medieval alchemy.
The lyrics are alive with antiquated poetics, a style that is entirely unique to Roberts. His writing is beautiful and captivating, but neither separate nor distant. He sings as though an unbroken folk tradition had continued in a parallel culture, drawing our present, dark times into its embrace and making our concerns part of an ancient cycle in which reality and magic interweave across time. Every song on Pangs matches its lyrical density with delightful layers of subtle instrumentation – the sound of a band born to play together. It is perhaps as a conductor and enabler of co-operation, the pole for a shifting group of players, that Roberts has the most to offer. As ‘Vespers Chime’ declares: “We will live in magnificence if we can”- a much-needed manifesto for a glorious future.
Pangs is available via Amazon.