Brother Seed’s Traveling Pro-Nation ShowMusic — By Anthony Easton on February 26, 2013 at 3:00 am
A Wonder Working Stone
The last time I wrote about Alasdair Roberts for Burnside, I mentioned the Canadian connection to Scotland. Since then, Quebec has defeated its federalist premier for a Quebec nationalist, and Scotland has proposed a date for an election determining possible separation from the United Kingdom. The new Quebec premier recently spent time in Scotland, attempting to build bonds over this—and Scotland was polite but distant. They think they will secede, others think they will secede, they think Quebec will not secede, others think that Quebec will not secede. It might be that, ironically, the EU has allowed for smaller nations to develop their own narratives outside the colonial history (see Catalonia in Spain, for example), or perhaps Europe is beginning to recognize the problem of nationalisms. Quebec keeps working through this post-1960s idea of a restored nationalism, when metaphors of fracturing or unmooring seem to fit better.
Listening to Roberts reminds us of all this.
A Wonder Working Stone could not be a more Scottish album—it has at least two anthems to Caledonia, the ancient name for the nation, a name that some say predates the Celts. Roberts has a rag-tag, anharmonic group of singers repeat, more than two dozen times, ”these are the wheels of the world my friend, for two thousand years, they have been spreading destruction all over this land,” as a chorus to the song “Wheels of the World.” He mentions superstitions that occupy the liminal space between historical Christianity and Paganism, like the tales of ghosts that emerge on Lammas eve in the uncanny “The End of Breeding.” He turns a polka into a reel and turns the domestic into the explicitly political into a universal desire to work past suffering in the triply entwined cycle “Song Composed in December / The Bluebell Polka / Rap Y Clychau Glâs.” This triple song also has some of the strongest and most beautiful of traditional instrumentation, with hand drums, horns, and accordion/hurdy-gurdy.
This ability to have the music work around the text, to elucidate its implications and to allow it to be as allegorical as some of the more cryptic lyrics, is skilled. Long portions of the work are simply a line repeated, and with its verses separated by percussive drums/hand claps, the song “Brother Seed,” spoken in Scots, sounds like a re-traditionalization, something that you could imagine the poet Hugh MacDiarmid writing.
The best of these instincts—and perhaps the reason why this music reminded me so much of the recent tension between Quebec and Scotland—is the song “Scandal and Trance.” It starts with almost a minute of “Red River Valley,” a song that has a long legacy in the Canadian west as a cowboy song, as a song adapted by Canada’s Métis people, as a song that might have been written but is now traditional. Roberts makes it a dirge and he abstracts it slightly—it moves into a dance, speeding up, making it more pleasant. Then comes the possibly sarcastic first line: “It’s so good to be here on the edge of empire.” That’s what it feels like in Canada right now. It must be what it feels like in Scotland: the gifts and the isolation of capital, the pleasures of self-sufficiency, but the backhanded gifts of dependency.
The rest of “Scandal and Trance” mentions a banker and a “motherfucking broker” before listing all the things Roberts loves about “Caledonia, [his] Caledonia,” and cursing the silver sexton who courts Roberts’ grieving bride. No matter how much you could sing this song, no matter how familiar it becomes, it is also profoundly personal and intended for a local community. Six minutes on, we get back to a bit of the “Red River Valley,” only now it’s sped up, closer to a jig, and then the repeated advice, “get over your tiny self”—and Roberts undergirds his optimistic music, the reel and the jig, with the triumphant coda, “all days will end in joy, they will never end in evil.”
The dirged-out version of a cowboy song of great isolation, then the reel and the jig; the traditional work juxtaposed with profanity and cursing and blessing; and the genuine beauty of a work that is direct, local, political and ancient—this is an intensely complicated set of interlocking narratives. No matter how much Caledonia is home to Roberts, he talks about leaving it in the final song so he can be “far from those who blame us.”
A Wonder Working Stone is a Roberts record—the implications of that should be clear. His voice retains its burred edges and slightly difficult tone. The songs are quite long, and the musical sophistication can require much effort. But for those of us who live on the edges of empire, it is a beautiful monument to the politicization of place.