It’s difficult to escape comparisons to Will Oldham when reading through reviews of Alasdair Roberts’ work, with many writers settling on the simple epithet: “Scotland’s answer to Bonnie “Prince” Billy.” The two songwriters share a love of simple arrangements furnished with gently strummed guitars and unconventional subject matter. Legend has it that Roberts got a record deal with Drag City after passing a demo tape to Oldham at a show. Spoils continues in a similar vein to his previous solo work, with some raggedy instrumentation providing apposite backing to lyrics about (among other things) masturbation, Christianity and sterile rams.
Glockenspiels, a harmonium, dulcimers, fiddles and a hurdy gurdy are employed as the album unfolds, with Roberts doggedly sticking to his authentic folk-rock roots. Even the synthesizer deployed on “Unyoked Oxen Turn” sounds at least several decades old. The musical backing, although often invigorating, is mostly incidental to Roberts’ songwriting skills, which are the primary focal point here. His strength as a songsmith is drawn from his unusual use of language, which is sometimes amusing and occasionally doesn’t work at all.
Roberts refers to historical figures in many of the songs, such as Ned Ludd (“Ned Ludd’s Rant”) and St. Columba (“The Book of Doves”), and borrows a rhyming pattern from the traditional English Nursery Rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” for the latter. The central thrust of his subject matter ranges from the morbidly amusing grotesquerie of “Unyoked Oxen Turn,” in which a cripple searches for his errant legs, to the stirring tale of love that closes the album, “Under No Enchantment (But My Own).” The tone of the record is downcast, with Roberts’ rueful vocals wandering in and out of tune and the music only occasionally picking up the pace, such as the frantic clip that suddenly lights up “Ned Ludd’s Rant.”
What sets Roberts apart from the freak-folk set — or almost anything coming out of the contemporary folk scene — are his superior linguistic skills and his eye for a good yarn. “So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)” is a highlight of Spoils, with the singer recalling a country stroll in which he stumbled upon his younger self. “I was bilious/ I was saturnine,” he croaks, before staring into an urn in which the youthful Roberts has just ejaculated. He is capable of infusing these tales with humor and pathos, often within the space of a few words, all delivered in his compassionate Scottish brogue.
Spoils is ostensibly rooted in the traditional trappings of folk music, but Roberts’ crackpot lyrical embellishments position this album closer to the psych-folk leanings of the Incredible String Band than they do to Devendra Banhart or Sufjan Stevens. He’s not going to escape the shadow of Oldham with this record; the pair share too many musical and lyrical fascinations, and an unnerving preference for drenching songs in deathly silence. But Spoils contains enough perverse and engaging lyrical quirks to make it worthy of investigation, and who can resist lines like: “And here’s the dowry of the leper/ A walnut shell and a peck of pepper” (from “Hazel Forks”).