Upon hearing this quavery-voiced Scottish singer-songwriter with a penchant for inherited melodies and ballad forms, and recognizing that this, his most recent release, has been put out by Drag City, one might find it too easy to dub him the overseas Will Oldham (he shares his formal, humorless delivery and his love of slow tempos) and cast about for ways to obfuscate this obvious conclusion. And since one would expect that Roberts would draw heavily from the conventions established by the English breed of ‘60s folk-rock pioneers, Pentangle and Fairport Convention (though there is nothing on this record like the stunning guitar playing of Bert Jansch or Richard Thompson, and Roberts is not the male Sandy Denny, despite sharing something of her idiosyncratic delivery), it seems too predictable to point that out. But to try to say something other than this, to try to describe Roberts in some unusual and ingenious way, would, in the end, just be very misleading, especially since it is the very blatancy of these comparisons, and the facility with which he works in well-defined styles, that makes it so easy to absorb his music, and begin enjoying it almost immediately. After all, that is the underlying principle of folk music: that its instantaneous recognizability through the recycling of melodies allows the “folk” to feel as though it belongs to them, as though they could almost join in, as though the music really emerged from themselves and the body of untutored musical knowledge they’ve effortlessly accrued.
But, one wonders, who is this “folk”? And why do Roberts’s well-documented and authentic-sounding evocations of their music (the liner notes indicate his specific borrowings from traditional Ulster and Northumbrian melodies and a Sussex hunting song) seem like anthropological museum pieces? On the one hand, as media technologies work to atomize people and isolate them from the possibility of shared traditions, which require a vigorous community life to sustain, one wonders if his sort of folk music can ever be anything but nostalgic ever again—at best it wistfully evokes a putatively more authentic time, at worst it becomes a kitschy musical analogue of a Medieval Times (it is one of Farewell Sorrow’s supreme achievements that it can feature songs about wenching and carousing, and make lyrical reference to “verdant braes”, “a fallow doe”, and a “leveret hide” without making you feel you’re at a Renaissance festival).
Yet on the other hand, modern society clearly spawns subcultures that rely on music to hold them together: many musical genres reflect youth scenes whose membership depends on familiarity with certain bands and appropriation of those bands’ fashion choices. From this perspective, Evanescence is folk music to disaffected teenaged girls, 50 Cent to suburban wannabe badasses, the White Stripes to greasy-haired hipsters, and Alasdair Roberts is not really folk music at all. Instead, he works a very slender niche; he is the equivalent of an author who writes historical literary fiction, reaching a very slight, very marginal audience. And it is probably better that way, for if there were a group of people who consciously constituted the English “folk,” there would have to be a pretty fascistic ideology uniting them, and it would then be hard to appreciate Roberts’s work without feeling guilty. And there is much to appreciate, no matter how predictable its sound may be to those fluent with his niche. Innovation, after all, is an overrated virtue for music, as novelty frequently equals disposability.
Farewell Sorrow’ s distinction lies in how its songs are unified by their shared tropes, with metaphors of music, love, and predation all reflecting upon each other, as in “Join Our Lusty Chorus”, sung from the point of view of an affianced poacher. The songs at the heart of the album form an oblique cycle about the singer’s love for “Polly”. In two different songs she is likened to an instrument, as something he can play, something that can allow him to give expression to something otherwise inchoate and not necessarily benevolent. It’s no surprise for singer/songwriters to be ambivalent about love, but Roberts constructs the images so they work in both directions, so that the vagaries of his love are also symbolic of the difficulties of creativity, the pursuit of an elusive truth that is marred by its capture. The return to the idea of the hunt, always from a slightly different perspective, allows listeners to consider the different competing forms desire can take, and the ways in which the strongest desires may take no object at all.