This is the fifth album of traditional folk tunes which Alasdair Roberts has issued. He has also released several albums of his own compositions and it is a mark of his skill that it is pretty much impossible to tell the difference, and to know whether songs are his own imaginings or not. All share an erudite sensibility, often mixing his plaintive ghostly wailing voice (sometimes mournful, often joyous) with fine, spidery, guitar accompaniment. This new record is a deep collection, full of sweet spots, rich in detail, crystal clear in execution, and teeming with life. As usual, he reveals the multilayered meanings and nuances in even the most apparently straightforward songs, as with "The Bonny Moorhen" of Celtic folklore, and "Drimindown," a simple tale of a lost cow but also a devastating loss of a family's livelihood.
I probably first heard and liked the music of Alasdair Roberts in August 1997 when on an English summer holiday at Woodspring Priory—or Worspring as it was known in the Middle Ages. It was founded in 1210 by William de Courtenay, grandson of Reginald Fitz-Urse, one of the assassins of St Thomas Becket. Providing an income for the locals was likely a way for de Courtenay to purge his family's ongoing guilt, and indeed St Thomas is patron saint of the priory and his martyrdom depicted on its seal.
Woodspring was continuously improved right up until 1536 when it was suppressed and bashed about by Henry VIII—probably because no one believed he'd go through with his wrecking plans. Today Woodspring is remarkable for the way in which it was converted after the Dissolution: the new Tudor owners putting their house right inside the church itself! Now, imagine all this as a beguiling airy narrative seasoned with blood, ghosts, tears, and romance, and you'll start to get an idea of the kind of detail and atmosphere in the recordings of Alasdair Roberts.
The tune I heard back then was "Well Lit Tonight" from his earliest group called Appendix Out. Most likely I had recorded the John Peel radio program and was taking a short break from beer, whisky, sausages, cake, cricket, and the board game Fair Means Or Foul to re-listen to the show on a cassette recorder and pick out what I thought were the gems. Since that time, Roberts has released a torrent of music and also engaged with a rare enthusiasm in myriad collaborations. In a sense, though, nothing has changed: the uncluttered nature of his tunes invariably allows them to shine like stars against a clear dark winter night. Incidentally, the way he collaborates is also admirable: never hogging the limelight but never basking in reflected glory either. What is new on Grief in the Kitchen and Mirth in the Hall is piano accompaniment on several tracks. Naturally this works because it sounds completely unforced and, well, natural—not least with Roberts swapping gender to sing "The Lichtbob's Lassie."
The album title is a strong clue to his delicate yet microscopically all-encompassing approach, subtly exploring the extremes of human experience and much that is in-between; as down to earth as a mud clad chapter of John Berger's writing in Pig Earth and as stunningly phantasmagorical as the final piece here "The Holland Handkerchief." If Philip K Dick had written folk ballads rather than novels, even he might have struggled to come up with such a tale.
When Alasdair Roberts exits this earthly realm, hopefully a long time from now, I am certain that his passing will trigger a deeply reverential critical assessment of the amazing body of recorded work he will leave behind; whether self-penned or unearthed from the traditional seam.