The first time I heard Alasdair Roberts he was a member of Appendix Out, doing his fragile-yet-heartfelt rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in a way that evoked as much emotion as the original. Recent solo projects have been lauded by several magazines on both sides of the pond but Roberts has taken matters one step further with this album. Unlike Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, on this eight-song album Roberts is intent on creating a series of “Death Ballads”. As Roberts discusses in the liner notes, some of the songs date back to the 1970s while others are centuries old. But regardless of their past, Roberts summons all of his passionate vocals, although this time producer Will Oldham lends a hand.
The eight songs begin with “Lord Ronald”, featuring Roberts’ spoken-cum-singing sound seeping through his lilt. “Oh where have you been my handsome young man”, he sings as the track’s haunting quality comes to the fore. Helped by Belle And Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell on cello and Oldham on subtle, hushed supporting vocals, Roberts sounds as if he’s trying out for The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem. Although the song is almost dirge-like, it slowly builds with keyboards, guitar and drums into a soft, tender hymn that flows perfectly. But Roberts is what makes this work from start to finish, sounding like a young Shane MacGowan — if he had attempted to proverbially jump on the wagon. The conclusion is unnerving as well, as you’re not exactly sure whether a crescendo of sound is about to erupt or not, instead of just crawling along with the tone of a cello and distant strumming of a guitar. “I’ll leave her the rope and the high gallows tree and let her hang there for the poisoning of me”, he sings of his lover. Not exactly the coziest, romantic ditty I can think of.
“Molly Bawn” is more musical in terms of its instrumentation, sounding like a mountain or Appalachian track complete with cello, dulcimer, guitar and drums. The song, which describes mistaking a lady for a swan and killing her, is more folksy and Celtic in style. It leaves you with the image of Roberts as some sort of mystic minstrel wandering from one medieval village to another. The song, known more formerly as “Polly Vaughan”, was learned from a 1974 recording by Packie Manus Byrne of Donegal. The monotone supporting vocal from Oldham adds little to the song, the percussion of which grows halfway through and resembles a bodhran. “The Cruel Mother”, which looks at infanticide, is a cross between Celtic and folk, although the tempo is somewhat off kilter. Taken from three different versions, the song is perhaps the “up-tempo” number, moving just above a downtrodden folk effort as a fiddle is both played and plucked.
The song which contains the most sway or waltz-like format is the powerful and poignant “On The Banks Of Red Roses”, as Roberts works hand-in-hand with the fiddle of John McCusker. But it is basically an anomaly, as Roberts returns to the dark and morbid with “The Two Brothers” — the lone difference with this song being that the arrangement is a cross between being orchestral in parts and a rag-tag, disconnected, Waits-ian collage of noises in others. Roberts gives his best performance on this song, despite the fact he rarely reaches for notes over the eight minute epic. Another gem is the poppy, almost gleefully melodic “Admiral Cole”, with its intricate, acoustic sound. The ensuing “Sweet William” is also in this vein, bringing to mind Appendix Out’s A Warm And Yeasty Corner EP. “I’ll sit me down and I’ll write me a song / I’ll write it neat and I’ll write it long”, Roberts sings as a woman who has lost her William.
While several have done it just as well before him, Alasdair Roberts has few peers when it comes to treating these rather cruel stories with such love and care.