Hirta Songs (Stone Tape) is a study in bardic lyricism, developing melody and story with stoic virtuosity. The song cycle is a setting of noted Scottish poet Robin Robertson, whose words in this collection explore the sights and sentiments of the St. Kilda archipelago, abandoned in 1930. Alasdair Roberts, with Drag City label-mates Bill Callahan and Will Oldham, has a gift for richly intimate folk music.
Robertson braids the flora and fauna and the fear and trembling of the cliffs together into a flowing narrative without and within. The center of the cycle is two recitations accompanied by harp, one a short, hallucinatory haunting of a dead playmate, the other an extended elegiac survey of the islands as the last inhabitants left it. The imagery, such as in lines about a particular sea bird of Stac Biorach, is gorgeous: “Out on the ocean, they ride the curve of the wave; but here / in the air above their nests, in their thousands, they are ash / blown round a bonfire”. His words and warm-but-somber reading clearly evoke a particular place, but the wound of leaving home he surgically describes is universally applicable. Elsewhere Robertson confronts grim reality with the same reverence, as in detailing a young man’s futile courtship: “She said she would if I went to the cliff / And there filled up the hollow with my blood / So I filled it all up a hundred times / But it all drained into the sea”.
Roberts and his minimal ensemble similarly weave independent lines of counterpoint. Each instrument, from upright bass to flute, is given a melodic identity and development. Perhaps in response to Robertson’s forays into free verse, some melodic phrase lengths overlap each other in interesting ways, especially in opener “A Fall of Sleet.” These are all top-notch musicians, especially the harpist, who freely lilts through solo songs in addition to accompanying Robertson’s poetry. One is left with the same slack-jawed awe of the playing as with Chris Thile’s various folk pieces.
Together the words and music evoke the large, fated space and the furrowed-brow composure of Scotch-Irish folk music that has had such an influence on our own American balladry. The majesty of the islands shines through the doomed personal struggles populating the verses, and the record ultimately honors the continuation of Life that dwarfs our own.