According to the usual way of things, the general rule is that bodies turn to dust, empires implode, love sours, cliffs crumble, film fades, buildings fall, books disintegrate, and most human deeds are soon forgotten. Given that, sound would seem a fragile presence. Yet there must always be exceptions to every rule. We know that radio waves continue to travel through space and can occasionally be reheard years after their transmission. Words, tunes, pieces of rhyme and song can slip like genetic material through the generations and the constructs of time. Precise reasons for this are best left to historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, but surely it can only occur if words ring true and tunes sound good to the listener in the here and now.
The Amber Gatherers is another splendid effort by Alasdair Roberts, with the help of Tom Crossley, Gareth Eggie, and Gerard Love. The album was recorded in Glasgow, in the summer of 2006 by Dave Paterson and Pam Smith. From his days as Appendix Out, each of the records released in his own name has pleased me greatly, with that pleasure hitting something of a peak with Farewell Sorrow from 2003. It is to his credit that he refuses to simply repeat a formula too closely. The follow-up album, An Earthly Man, featured longer songs and something of a darker mood without tipping into a pastiche of what a dark record might be expected to sound like. Across all his recordings a consistency is maintained, so that while there may be undoubted highlights, it is best to hear his records in total rather than cherry picking. That way the ebb and flow can be enjoyed. His creations are clever without appearing to reach for cleverness, and have a haunting and mysterious quality while sparkling with clarity. They roll as naturally as a tide. It is obvious that Roberts wisely concentrates on researching, writing, and performing, rather than worrying what are the major themes of his recorded work. Some of his finest moments include a powerful ambiguity, by which I mean, for example, as many times as I have heard “Down Where the Willow Wands Weep” or “The Grey Silkie of Sull Skerry” they are still hugely affecting, even though their exact meaning continues to elude, as surely as an attempt at following the path out of an Escher print. Indeed, I hope never to be able to say for sure what the songs are about.
Perhaps for the first half-dozen listens The Amber Gatherers will seem lighter fare than An Earthly Man. Yet as surely as a skimming stone eventually sinks beneath the waves, these songs drop into magical sub-layers of meaning, and into murky nuance. Roberts has not been deserted by the ability to follow the course which seems right. Plus, he’s long been capable of a kind of audio paradox wherein a jolly and carefree track will initially mask linguistic twists capable of throwing the attentive listener into many other states. As on all of his albums, there is a transmigrating narrative voice inhabiting many forms; male, female, animal, spirit, moving as fluidly as the noncorpum from David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. To some extent this quality liberates the listener and distinguishes the singer from the songs. We can appreciate his choices without believing that he is always speaking in his own voice.
I have heard Roberts’s voice described as cold, but to me it is one of the most soulful voices in all music, possessed of warmth to make pain endurable. While he also can be humorous or wry, it is a rare storytelling voice which can use terms like branches, cows, graves, ships, scabbards, firewater, funeral pyres, ashes, bones, lashes, trees, mortar, melody, eyes, ember, nectar, roses, rivers, hew, ether, farewell, cruel, gaunt, silkie, or cradle, and invest them with a significance both topical and timeless. It is nevertheless jolting to hear him sing the word “databases” on the excellent “Firewater”.
“River Rhine” is a circular piece of gentle hypnotism hinting at lovers’ glances mirroring flowing water in the Clyde and Rhine rivers, or something like that! “I Have a Charm” has a vague blues feel but doesn’t seem out of place in the scheme of the record, as could be expected given the entangled tributaries of contemporary music. Elsewhere, handclaps, sitar, and faint electronics are welcome additions to the stream of things.
“The Old Man of the Shells” occurs one Shrovetide day and is another winding, watery tale that I cannot fathom. The effect, though, is quite the opposite of the lines it contains, proclaiming “Wise words on a foolish tongue / However sweetly they be sung / They’ll never please the old men of the shells.” The melody is adapted from that of the traditional Irish song “The Verdant Braes of Screen”.
Roberts’s voice, his guitar tunings, and his material all combine to create more than the sum of their ample parts. Elements of dirge, jig, drone, and reel lurk beneath the surface but are never overplayed. The magnificent “Waxwing” showcases just how little a craftsman needs to create beauty and mystery. The tale of give and take, value and allure, fate and purpose, makes me think of Lal Waterson’s “Migrating Bird” from an album finished by her son, Oliver Knight, after her death. That, and Nabakov’s fictional poet, John Shade, and the poem Pale Fire:
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure of the windowpane.”
“I Had a Kiss of the King’s Hand” is an example of the kind of song which works because of a willingness to repeat similar lines and allow subtle change to advance the story. Roberts has used this method well on other occasions and does so again here, with “kiss of the king’s hand” being replaced first by “sip of the king’s wine” and finally “asleep in the king’s arms.”
While Roberts has worked with Jason Molina and Will Oldham, once covered a Vashti Bunyan song and like Mr_Hopkinson’s Computer and Jim O’Rourke, has had the good taste to cover Ivor Cutler, he clearly relies on no one, and I fully expect his work to sound as great in 200 years time. After four albums under his own name, Alasdair Roberts (whose father was a folk singer and gatherer of traditional tunes) has only begun to delve into the waters of, as he calls it, his father’s black ditch. Whatever we would call the task that it is in his capable hands is a comforting thought for those of us who intend to seek out his future recordings. He brings fragments that have slipped through time and renders them fresh for our ears. As Kurt Vonnegut remarked:
“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”