(Cold Cowboy Songs, digital, vinyl)
Picture a quintessential Vermont home, maybe an old farmhouse in the mountains. The interior is quirky and cozy, adorned with homemade pottery, dried flowers and a woodstove. Furniture sourced from Front Porch Forum postings sits under exposed beams. The smell of bread baking comes from the kitchen, and a dog sleeps on the couch while snow falls gently outside. Tying the scene together are the sounds of Sympathizer, Michael Roberts' newest album, spinning on the record player.
Sympathizer is the fourth solo album from the Guilford musician, its nine songs representing only a fraction of the music he has released. Roberts also leads the alt-country project Wooden Dinosaur and the honky-tonk collective the Rear Defrosters. In his review of Roberts' 2019 album, Mixed Emotions, Seven Days culture coeditor Dan Bolles called Roberts a "Vermont treasure" and wrote that he'd be a card-carrying member of Roberts' fan club, if one existed. I would also eagerly sign up.
In an eloquent, verging-on-philosophical letter on his Bandcamp page, Roberts writes that all of his "albums became little time capsules of my life" and that "Sympathizer is bound to be the pandemic time capsule." A sense of place oozes out of this album.
Roberts sings thoughtfully of his literal surroundings: snowflakes, patient wolves, early morning breezes and the bats that catch them. Lyrics explicitly about place wander seamlessly into deeper ponderings. On "Two White Tails," he sings, "Let the wind carry the fear... / the world passing by / like a ceremony."
Roberts discusses in his Bandcamp letter how his conceptual inspirations for the album included environmental readings with themes of place and the interrelationships of species. Each song evokes these literal and theoretical inspirations.
Roberts builds his songs around acoustic guitar and tranquil vocal melodies, often complemented by gentle lap steel guitar and synthesizer in the background. While most of Sympathizer was recorded in-studio, Roberts created a few tracks in his home studio on a cheap tape recorder. This variation in sound quality adds depth to the album and reflects the conditions of the pandemic lockdown.
On "Take It Slow," one of the home recordings and an album highlight, Roberts double-tracks vocals to create harmonies sung over a simple but catchy guitar riff. The track's rawness makes it intimate, as if you were listening to a voicemail of him singing the song to you. If Sympathizer lacks anything, it's change of pace — it's slow, but then again, so was the time in which the songs were born.
Sympathizer is a soothing listen. It's a beautiful, patient collection of tunes that evoke thoughtful, reflective sentiments about place and being.
"We have always known that we live in a beautiful place, but our privilege astounded us right then," Roberts writes of being home during quarantine. He transferred this beauty into Sympathizer, and it is a privilege to listen to.
Sympathizer is available at songsofmichaelroberts.bandcamp.com.