As it is with all unheralded gems, those who like Alasdair Roberts really like Alasdair Roberts. Since ceasing Appendix Out operations at the turn of the century, Roberts has quietly built an astounding catalog of singular, psych-tinged Scottish balladry that attracted scant recognition from both mainstream and indie outlets. One might expect a guy who runs in the same circles as Will Oldham and Jason Molina to have broken through by this point, but perhaps it’s for the best. While Oldham and Molina still create mysterious and personal works, their albums come with a high degree of baggage. In comparison, eight years into his solo career, a new Roberts album still feels remarkably fresh. His defenders border on the zealous, as each new installment feels like a secret that absolutely needs to be shared.
Will Spoils change this? I suspect that fans already know the answer. The pleasures of his work come guarded in complex stanzas and obscure language. If that’s the hang up, then all the attention paid to fellow word-tangler Joanna Newsom might confuse, but the crucial difference lies in style and subject matter: Newsom basically builds her own, while Roberts borrows from tradition. As much as Lit nerds might want it, centuries-old diction and construction will never be cool or accessible, and it’s to Roberts’ credit that he’s steadfast in creating his world.
Those who break through the wall reap the rewards: songs as nakedly emotional as Oldham’s, only with far-more inventive instrumentation and song structure. With able assistance from returning sidemen (besides former Appendix Out members Tom Crossley and Gareth Eggie, frequent Richard Youngs collaborator Alex Neilson drums on several tracks), Roberts hints at some of Youngs’ discordant textures, but always brings the focus back to his own lilting, unassuming cadence.
Though it doesn’t hit the peaks of No Earthly Man, his 2005 foray into the pure history of the ballad, Spoils easily holds its own. Notable spots abound, but there’s a key moment in “Hazel Forks” that removes any doubt that Roberts is getting stale. Normally reserved, he applies a degree of force to his vocals in the following verse: “The asphodel and the lily red / The daffodil has lost its head / The bloom of dread, a bloom of dread / The newly wed and the nearly dead / They’ll all go down together.” The increase in intensity is barely perceptible, but absolutely enthralls, and if such a slight increase can excite so much, I think Roberts still has me. As a true believer, I guess I can’t really stress Spoils at the expense of the earlier work; it’s simply another engrossing chapter in an incredible story.