Essential New Music: Alasdair Roberts’ “Grief In The Kitchen And Mirth In The Hall” 

A folk song’s enduring appeal may come down to its flexibility. One person’s tall tale is another’s symbolic epic of resistance, and if you can capture the attention of both, you’ve doubled your audience. On “The Wonderful Grey Horse,” Alasdair Roberts relates the saga of a steed who was in the garden when Adam committed a well-known error in judgment, proved his mettle on Noah’s ark and was dunked in the deep blue sea by the captains of Carthage before ending up in Roberts’ hometown of Glasgow, where it turns out that he’s an eternal opponent of Tory rule.

Since the turn of the century, Roberts has chased the truth of myth in song. Sometimes, he writes his own, and others, he delves into the collected folk tunes of Scotland, Ireland and England. While Roberts mixes things up in concert, on record, the twain never meet. Likewise, he tends to switch production from one albun to the next; in 2021, he collaborated with a Norwegian experimental folk group, and in 2018, he was accompanied by electronics. Roberts likes to change things up. Grief In The Kitchen And Mirth In The Hall is his first collection of folk songs in five years and his first LP of solo performances in a longer spell. But since he’s a nimble acoustic guitarist with preternaturally good instincts about how to accompany his own voice, which sports an accent as thick as your best old sweater, Roberts doesn’t really need any help.

And as you may have already intuited from the example of “The Wonderful Grey Horse,” Roberts understands how music can make statements that endure, but also speak to the moment. The individuals who populate these songs may be an old laird done in by a faithless spouse and a jealous neighbor, or a maid who has gotten seven years of servitude after making off with the boss’s silver, but their decisions—and their location at the short end of a long, sharp stick—describe problems of human existence that just don’t go away. So, they endure or they die or, like that wonderful grey horse, they become things of myth, their old tales animated anew by great performances like the ones on Grief In The Kitchen And Mirth In The Hall.

—Bill Meyer