Alasdair Roberts‚Äô creative spirit and respect for tradition dovetail perfectly on this collaboration with Norwegian collective, V√∂lvur. With traditional songs (in both artists‚Äô languages) balanced by four new Roberts compositions, and the latter‚Äôs plaintive voice complemented by both Marthe Lea‚Äôs beautiful singing and the collective‚Äôs edgy, swinging and restrained playing, The Old Fabled River is joyous and mournful in equal measure.
From the opening "Hymn of Welcome," which concerns the passing of a flame from a dying hand to one starting life, to the the closing "Now The Sun Goes Down/Nu Solen G√•r Ned" it is hard to miss the various pairings and the balance which inform this album. Cradle and grave, sunrise and sunset, transformations, time passing each day and life flowing through seasons, love blooming amid the beauty and harshness of nature. In this context, Robert Burns‚Äô poem "Song Composed in August" fits right in. Written by the sixteen year old poet as an ode to young Peggy Thomson, of Kirkoswald, and to the precious nature surrounding her, it has often been recorded as "Now Westlin Winds," famously by Davy Graham who said it was "about everything." Sung here in three-part a cappella it sounds appropriately young and vital.
At the close of his life, Burns took to wading chest-deep into the sea in an attempt to shock his body back into good health.¬†Given the title of this album, I reflected on some of Alasdair Roberts' earlier records and how water plays a part in several of my favorites: "Down Where The Willow Wands Weep" with its jangling intro and parting "may river flow and ever wend on" line, and his unforgettable version of "The Grey Silkie of Sull Skerry" wherein a woman has her child taken away by its father, (the grey silkie who can transform from a seal into a human) who pays her in gold and (correctly) predicts she will marry a gunner who will harpoon the slkie and their son. Some of the most memorable folk music is about transformation, be it from seal to human, a woman disguised as a man, humans becoming birds or hinds, and the more usual changes in life and nature. These emerge all over¬†The Old Fabled River, for instance with the reappearance of "Sweet William‚Äôs Ghost" the "no earthly man" from the album of that name, in which a woman chooses death in the hope of being with the visiting spirit of her beloved. This new version, indeed this record, is all the better for V√∂lvur's playing which, avoiding over-sweetness, retains an off kilter tension and loose-limbed freedom-within-a-framework perhaps associated with minimalist jazz or post-rock.
No matter the tune or the theme, Roberts always seems to be telling a story drawn from a well of understanding. His meandering voice sways like reeds on the banks of a stream, yet is steady and vivid as a single red thread in a tapestry, or the blue roads of an Ordnance Survey map like veins carrying blood around the body.¬†Marthe Lea‚Äôs lone singing is excellent too, and contrasts on two haunting traditional Scandinavian songs, about the sun rising, and then setting. Written by Thomas King (in 1674) and Samuel Olsen Bruun (1695) both are beautifully snug at home (koselig, even) amid Roberts‚Äô modern pieces. Of those, I have heard that "The Green Chapel" is in some ways the centerpiece of the album, with it‚Äôs reference to the Gaelic notions of geantra√≠, goltra√≠ and suantra√≠ (joy, lamentation and sleep) as being the three streams of music. My head agrees, but my heart says "The Tender Hour" is the highlight of this session; as wistful and melodious a song as I have ever heard, in expressing a love "as frail and simple as a winter flower slowly closing on the frozen dew before awakening in the tender hour." Even the clarinet part is brilliant. This is a song which, God willing, I am going to be humming twenty years hence.
Legendary singer Shirley Collins declared Roberts‚Äô 2018 record What News to be the album of the decade. By any reckoning, this is a new decade and, in brilliant unison with Egil Kalman, Marthe Lea, Fredrik Rasten, Hans Kjorstad and Andreas Hoem R√∏ysum, The Old Fabled River is an absolute classic.