This evening the roughcast interior of Glasgow’s Mitchell Library saw three giants of modern Scottish music come together.
Aidan Moffat shared top billing with RM Hubbert, who we’ll get to in a bit. Moffat began the evening with a spoken word reading of songs and poems. After a thoughtful introduction, gently warning parents that their attendant spawn might be unprepared for the realism of his segment (not exactly a departure from his career to date, you’d have thought), he launched into his work in his inimitable fashion: familiar yet fresh. The pieces were, as the man himself described, the product of a recent exploration of the great tradition of oral history in Scotland. They were also, as the man himself described, totally at odds with the sort of aesthetic his younger self would have considered. Like Alasdair Gray, Moffat seems to seek out new ways not so much to innovate but to reflect. It’s easy to imagine him being as respected a figure in 40 years as he is now, and was 10 years ago. Riffing on an iTtunes review of his latest album, and the style of Raymond Chandler, he takes in the world and puts out a unique perspective on it – not populist, not arrogant, not self-driven.
Much like RM Hubbert, winner of last year’s Best Scottish Album award. Hubbert treats his guitar the way Thelonious Monk treated his piano: with a heavy-handed passion which brings something new from the instrument by means you would imagine might just destroy it. Also like Monk he probably has to deal with critics suggesting that his style is related to the most obvious biographic detail to hand – for Monk that would be his indignant black rage, for Hubbert it would be his grief-stricken depression.
‘Hubby’, as he’s often known, talks candidly about his life and motivations between perfectly-succinct songs, mostly in a cappella flamenco style. It wouldn’t be right to talk about a theme across his work. It also wouldn’t be right to speculate as to the man’s life or intent through some analysis of what are achingly beautiful renderings of a human experience. But there might be readers out there who know the sort of space his work can bring to mind – the stillness and peace which seems to come out of the nihilistic longing that depression engenders in the hopeful. The sort of self-awareness only prolonged anomie can bring.
Backed superbly by the Cairn String Quartet, and with the room-clenching, Bassey-esque vocals of Emma Pollock, Hubbert was able to transfix his audience. His patter is the authentic, unvarnished speech of a man who clearly thinks about himself, his art and his place in the world a great deal (and by his own admission wishes sometimes wishes it were to a lesser extent) and the candid, it’s-a-fact-of-my-life take he has on his depression is at once endearing and liberating – like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse it’s a lot easier to believe someone when they tell you their depressing music isn’t actually depressing at all, because you can see for yourself that they know all too well what is and isn’t in that mode.
It’s difficult to think of many artists whose challenges so inform their music without ever overpowering it. RM Hubbert is a gifted man: his exquisite musicianship and mesmerising capacity for self-awareness make for some astonishing art. Long may he, and all the other great artists present tonight, continue.