Alasdair Roberts – S/T [Drag City]

Not quite self titled but entitled S/T and with a sparse portrait of Roberts as its cover, this album can easily be interpreted as a musical autobiography.

The plot isn’t made up of life events though, but of ideas and internal states which converge into a picture of the author’s personal philosophy.

The album is full of religious themes, with mentions of “the master’s hand”, “the parable speaker” and “the son of man”.

This can’t be taken at face value however, as the subtle and symbolic use of the biblical references suggests that they’re best read as metaphors for an underlying world view.

That worldview seems dualistic and Gnostic—there is a constant obsession with transcendence.

The symbol of the wanderer, walking the “way unfavoured” and the “road less travelled” is used again and again.

“You know I’m a seeker”, Roberts says, and he sees the path as a harsh one, where “strangler figs and fennel was springing from that hard unyielding land”, or more bluntly, “disaster thrives in every place it goes”.

Whilst always walking through the wilderness, Roberts sets himself apart from it.

“For every grove you worship in, the son of man’s already been”, he claims in ‘The Final Diviner’, criticising those of us pagans and materialists who attempt to immerse or at least reconcile ourselves with nature rather than rise above it.

‘In Dispraise of Hunger’ reveals Roberts’ dissatisfaction with our imperfect world even clearer – he compares the plenty of harvest with the “Lenten thirst”, the Christmas feast with January’s “hungry gap”, but promises an eschatological “morning when earthly plenty’s will spread uncounted”.

Whilst these struggles are generally met with confidence and humour, the penultimate song ‘This Uneven Thing’ shows us a fragile side to the weary wanderer.

Love is the uneven thing in question, as he compares the easy innocence of young romance to the hard work of building an enduring relationship.

Having been through the pain of love, he would prefer to put his heart “in a box of iron” given a second chance.

Once again, we see the contrast of platonic ideal with messy reality, this time shaded by melancholy defeatism.

‘Roomful of Relics’, is a positive, even practical conclusion to the journey.

Roberts’ decides that his lifeline to the transcendent is the sublime inspirations he expresses in music.

It’s an answer which even heathens such as myself can appreciate – art is seen as a unique intuitive tool, a key that opens up our small selves, expanding our awareness and lending meaning to life’s mysteries.

Words: C.R. Sanderson

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