A Wonder Working Stone

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His previous albums having focused on traditional Scottish songs - whether in collaboration with Mairi Morrison on 2012’s Urstan, or on his own on 2010’s Too Long in This Condition – with A Wonder Working Stone, Alasdair Roberts returns with a collection of original songs. Of course, one should be careful bandying around words like “original” here as Roberts is steeped in the folk tradition of borrowing or reworking existing material, something that he continues here. Sometimes this is done discretely and sometimes in a manner that’s playfully brazen, with “Bluebell Polka” and, somewhat surprisingly, “Red River Valley” making conspicuous appearances. What’s new and what’s old is never black and white, and few artists use this ambiguity as effectively as Roberts to produce folk music that, whilst owing a considerable debt to the past, is in no way simply a recreation of what has gone before. Never one for the sort of maudlin introspection favoured by a certain breed of singer-songwriters, A Wonder Working Stone is striking in its thematic ambition, taking on life, the universe and, if not everything, then quite a lot more. The songs here are lyrically rich and dense with imagery, while musically they frequently consist of multiple interwoven sections and none of the ten songs clock in at much under five-and-a-half minutes, with the longest being closer to ten minutes. They not only demand careful listening, but are sufficiently compelling to command it. Perhaps the most ambitious of the lot is “The Wheels of the World / The Conundrum”, an epic that takes in the nature of the human condition, before concluding with a defence of the artist in the face of worldly concerns. A sweet melody played with a lightness of touch by his band of Glasgow based musicians removes any fears of it collapsing under the weight of its ideas and the invocation to “Sing on” is defiant and stirring. At the other extreme, for the most part “Brother Seed” is just Roberts and his guitar, spinning a circular melody round and round, such that it feels on the brink of closing in on itself at any minute. With the addition of a few, murmured backing vocals, it’s incredibly effective and serves to highlight quite how staggeringly good a musician he is. Throughout the album, the landscape and wildlife of the Highlands are a recurring theme, presenting a beautiful but brutal place in which survival is a constant struggle.  “The Laverock and the Blackthorn”, evokes a blistering winter where “the north wind brings no rest” and the larks and blackbirds resolve to “go where none can tame us, far from Caledonia”. This theme of migration from the Highlands, whether to escape the brutal winter, or for other, darker reasons is picked up on “The End of Breeding” and perhaps most strikingly on “The Year of the Burning”. This is the most unambiguously historical song here, taking on the issue of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Century. With its chorus of “Whipcrack on” and some stinging electric guitar from Ben Reynolds recalling no less than Richard Thompson, it’s chillingly evocative. To focus too much on the darker side of this album, however, would be to miss its defining message.  Wherever there’s struggle here, defiance and celebration are never far away. “The Merry Wake” is a booze soaked frolic where, “some would consort with the miserable living, but we’d rather sport with the gleeful deceased”. On “Scandal and Trance / We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City”, with a line that seems an irrefutable nod to the state we find ourselves in now, he takes a dig at “the banker” and “the broker” who have “come to dance in the courtyard of the dead”, before inviting them, and everybody else for good measure, to “get over your tiny self because all days will end in joy”. Ultimately, “all days will end in joy”, is a pretty neat encapsulation of A Wonder Working Stone.  For all the struggle and death on show here, this is ultimately a life-affirming album. Both challenging and human, this is another fine piece of work from a unique and vital talent.