Too Long In This Condition

Will Oldham must have jumped out of his skin the first time he heard the demo sent to him by a fan called Alasdair Roberts. The Perthshire-raised Roberts must have seemed like a cryogenically frozen ancestor of his own Bonnie “Prince” Billy guise. In turn, it didn’t take a genius to work out why Roberts might have seen Oldham as a kindred soul.

Whether as an interpreter of traditional songs or a writer of his own, Roberts has in the past decade embarked on a run that, for quality if not quantity, has eclipsed that of his dungaree-wearing mentor. Just as a geologist might do with a cross- section of rock, on the liner notes of Roberts’s sixth album he picks out lyrical fragments in these “trad arrs” and sheds light on their gradual evolution over, in some cases, several hundred years. Hence, Long Lankin – a song written to detail a mason’s revenge on a lord who defaulted on a payment – might just as easily address a leper seeking an infant’s blood to cure his disease.

To read about these songs and then hear Roberts bring them to life is rather like the bit in Time Team when computer technology transforms the findings of that week’s dig into a 3-D sacred burial ground. On an album that has a sizeable body count – the ill-fated cabin boy of The Golden Vanity; the fratricide at the centre of What Put That Blood on Your Right Shoulder, Son? – that’s as salient an analogy as any. Yet, thanks to the players he has assembled, Roberts’s preoccupation with death has rarely sounded so life-affirming. Cases in point are the fragrant North African overtones detectable in the arrangement of Little Sir Hugh and the synergy of the bone-rattling handclaps and harmonies on The Daemon Lover.

If you walked into a Highland pub where the locals were hammering out these songs you might think twice before checking in. At the remove offered on here, though, Roberts’s macabre ceilidh carries an
irresistible allure.