Alasdair Roberts has earned his reputation as a respectful interpreter, having adopted and re-imagined many well-known British Isles ballads (see his excellent “Lord Ronald”, from 2005’s No Earthly Man). The Scottish singer/guitarist has deep roots in traditional music, but in the US, he is equally associated with modern indie-rock. Roberts has toured and recorded with many top performers from both worlds, and his own music is something of a hybrid, a blending of those sensibilities. He usually sings in a taut yet gentle tenor, not unlike that of American contemporary and label-mate Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie Prince Billy). While Roberts and Oldham share certain undeniable similarities in cadence and timbre, it would be a good idea to end the comparisons there… Roberts is on his own path, and through his long association with the Drag City label, has built one of the most consistently satisfying catalogs in indie-folk. The trend continues with The Wyrd Meme, a mini-album that follows on the heels of this year’s full-length Spoils.
This four song set possesses all the hallmarks of the singer’s unique style: flowery, borderline archaic language, traditional or traditional-derived melodies, varied and refreshing arrangements, and clever turns of phrase never in short supply. On opener “The Hallucinator and the King of the Silver Ship of Time”, Roberts paints a detailed portrait of the curious Hallucinator, and her visit from the King of Time, at the bottom of the ocean. Both the narrator’s point of view and the purpose of the meeting are nebulous, yet the imagery is so vivid that it’s hard not to get drawn in.
While that fantastical setting of “Hallucinator…” sounds something akin to a fable, second track “The Yarn Unraveller” seems to describe an imminent separation of the common human variety, one person leaving on a journey while the other is left behind. The song finds precedent in the Child Ballad “The Trooper and the Maid”, which has a similar premise and melodic arc, but as with many of Roberts’ re-castings, there is an appreciable immediacy and warmth that keeps things from sounding dated.
Alasdair Roberts – “The Yarn Unraveller”
Though the collection has it’s share of achingly sad and beautiful moments, there is also a welcome thread of levity woven into the songs. Closer “Coral and Tar” takes the form of a lullaby, and contains some real gems of wordplay, as Roberts mixes up self-deprecating humor, modern asides and naturalistic themes. Alliteration-rich lines such as “I’m no pine, I’m a man in my prime and I’m pining” and the twisting “…to join with the pine and to join with the oak in their blood oath to choke up the garden” are classic Roberts… seemingly world-weary, but with a wink.
The Wyrd Meme is a short yet worthy addition to Alasdair Roberts’ healthy discography. Existing fans won’t find any real surprises, but they will most certainly not be disappointed, and for the uninitiated, Meme would be a fine starting point.