Alasdair Roberts attempts to carve out new terrain with old tools.
Singer-songwriters like Alasdair Roberts have both a head start and a handicap when creating new albums. Roberts is a Scottish folk musician, and that comes with a long history and an equally long list of expectations. Fans of Scottish folk music will flock to him because of those expectations, while other listeners will only be impressed if Roberts defies such expectations. Roberts himself understands the weight of his challenge. Performing a mixture of traditional old songs and new ones, Roberts has made it his career aesthetic to navigate the terrain where the historical/traditional and the modern come together.
Spoils is the sixth solo outing for Roberts, formerly of Appendix Out and Amalgamated Sons of Rest (with Will Oldham and Jason Molina). On its eight tracks, the good and bad news is the album's consistency and conformity to genre expectations. While there aren't that many songs on Spoils, the first and last are over seven minutes each. One would think the inclusion of such epic tracks would demand variety in order to retain the listener's attention, but each song warbles along the folky lo-fi course with little to distinguish it from the other songs. This could be excellent if Roberts' voice were particularly unique or his songwriting more accessible. As is, his vocals often take on a quickly tiresome whine with little else happening musically to compensate for it. Lyrically, he spins dense narratives that are inventive but ultimately work better on paper than on the album
It is unusual to criticize the monotony of an album with the diverse array of instruments employed on it. In addition to the expected acoustic guitar, the album features a virtual museum of pleasantly antiquated instruments including harpsichord, harmonium, baroque guitar, 19th-century guitar, glockenspiel, viol, hurdy-gurdy, dulcimer and even the obscure psaltery. Yet, these unusual elements get lost among the more-predictable and less-satisfying sounds. There are pleasant instrumental fills throughout the album, but there are few points of synergy with Roberts' singing.
Fans of Scottish folk will, no doubt, enjoy this album immensely. But for those more curious about Roberts' quest to simultaneously embrace the musical past and the present, the album will largely be disappointing. The strategic anachronism Roberts attempts sounds more like indecision. To experiment with traditional sounds and instruments, Roberts could have taken a cue from the antifolk movement and worked with subversion rather than imitation. Yet, it is clear that he reveres the songs of the past too much to do so, something that would not be problematic if he allowed himself to settle comfortably into the traditional community.
Instead, Roberts is left in a confusing netherworld. His albums are released on Drag City, home to other neo-folk heroes such as Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham. While they are perhaps all targeting a similar demographic, Roberts is less successful at cross-breeding the old and the new. He lacks Newsom's inventive vocal melodies -- Roberts' vocal phrasings are decent but ultimately sound like a less-convincing Richard Bucker -- and the instant appeal of Oldham's songwriting. Roberts is then left essentially targeting an audience obsessed with novelty, but his ammunition is weak. His success and reputation would certainly benefit either from repositioning himself in more of a traditional context or working in collaboration with other artists who can refurbish the traditional elements of his music.