The drizzly love affair between gloomy alternarockers and Richard Thompson has little to do with the English singer/guitarist’s revisionist folkie heritage in Fairport Convention, his extraordinary instrumental skill or his generally fine solo albums. No, what resonates most among the shaving-razor-and-valium set are the songs he wrote during the difficult passage and aftermath of his marriage and musical partnership with singer Linda Thompson: “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Withered and Died,” “Walking on a Wire,” “For Shame of Doing Wrong,” “Dimming of the Day.” Unlike the depressives who marble the acoustic world, however, Richard Thompson has never been the sort whose own life seems threatened by the miseries detailed in his work: even cornered on the cover of Shoot Out the Lights, the couple’s harrowing masterpiece, he’s smiling. Some abiding optimism inherent in his personality (and perhaps his Sufi Islam faith) has kept him looking past the disasters, incisively — sometimes impishly, especially when he writes and sings in the first person — chronicling the worst things people can do to each other without drawing the obvious cynical conclusions about mankind. Matched by the unpretentious sincerity of his performances, his songs are, at their best, enlightening and at the very least soul-nourishing.
Among the merchants of grim (which is only one facet of Thompson’s much broader art), Thompson exhibits a rare sense of humor and sanity that, combined with his brutal emotional honesty, makes him a paradigm of underground sensibilities — in a career that is nothing of the sort. Basically, he’s a troubadour who accepts sadness as a fellow traveler in open-minded enthusiasms that have deposited him comfortably in realms as diverse as “Matty Groves” and Pere Ubu. His mid-’80s participation in the Golden Palominos and a two-album partnership with Henry Kaiser, John French and Fred Frith are as much part of Thompson’s oeuvre as ballads of the 18th century. As a result, his songs have proven equally useful to folkies like Jo-El Sonnier, June Tabor and sometimes sideman Clive Gregson, as well as those of a more restless, rebellious nature, most notably Bob Mould, Elvis Costello and Maria McKee. (For his part, Thompson playfully does Who songs in concert.) The two tribute albums reflect that duality: The World Is a Wonderful Place favors homey types like Victoria Williams, Christine Collister, Peter Blegvad and Marvin Etzioni; Beat the Retreat holds the center with Bonnie Raitt (“When the Spell Is Broken”), Los Lobos (“Down Where the Drunkards Roll”), Beausoleil (“Valerie”) and June Tabor (“Beat the Retreat”), but also opens the doors to Mould (“Turning of the Tide”), R.E.M. (“Wall of Death”), X (“Shoot Out the Lights”) and Dinosaur Jr (“I Misunderstood”).
Watching the Dark, a three-disc collection that stretches from late-’60s Fairports to 1992 Thompson, is not for beginners. Compiled by devotees as a fan’s fantasy, half of the 47 songs are live and/or previously unreleased; it’s a treat for those up to speed, but hardly the basic introduction Thompson’s vast and uneven oeuvre could use. While Rumor and Sigh is an immediate, accessible representative of Thompson’s mature art at its peak, the sharpest, most memorable jolt of where he’s come from can be found in the Richard and Linda section: the subtly religious Pour Down Like Silver, Shoot Out the Lights and the happy loving couple’s barely more upbeat I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. All three are eloquently, exceptionally beautiful and deeply affecting personal expressions. For a different view of the era, Linda Thompson’s Dreams Fly Away is a 20-song career overview with unreleased material and alternate versions, some from the duo’s time together. It’s a superlative compilation of her then long-quiet recording career, which rekindled interest in her singing and eventually spurred her return to the music world.
Thompson’s solo albums of the ’80s are commendable but uneven, lacking the insidious spark of his best creations. Although he’d already worked with producer Mitchell Froom on Daring Adventures and Amnesia (the best thing about which is the photo of Thompson barre-chording a chainsaw, threatening it with a Townshend-like windmill), Thompson had a third-time’s-the-charm artistic epiphany on Rumor and Sigh. Backed with tasteful electric rustic pop arrangements (close in tone to John Hiatt’s Slow Turning), Thompson antes up a superlative, far-ranging set of witty new tunes on topics as varied as pornography (“Read About Love”), fatal motorcycles (“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”), fragile 78s (“Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands”), alcoholics (“God Loves a Drunk”) and sociopathy (“Psycho Street”). The love songs, too, are anything but ordinary and predictable. The payoff to the title of “I Feel So Good” is “I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight.” Facing a failure to communicate in “I Misunderstood,” Thompson slices and dices himself with surgical aplomb: “I thought she was saying good luck, she was saying goodbye.”
Sweet Talker is the pleasant but minor soundtrack to an instantly forgotten film. Thompson wrote the music and sings three of the four vocal songs (the rocking “To Hang a Dream On” is the keeper); otherwise, he and a company of cronies, both old and new, perform handsome instrumentals in various inflections and idioms, using accordion to invoke zydeco in “Roll Up,” tin whistle and bodhran to dance an Irish jig in the first half of “Conviction,” keyboards to achieve an elegant sitting- room grace in “Sweet Talker” and so on. (Thompson had previously essayed instrumental music, devoting Strict Tempo! to the task. He also had scored before, for a couple of BBC-TV series, 1987’s The Marksman and 1990’s Hard Cash. The 1997 Industry album with Danny Thompson is mostly instrumental, but has a few indifferent vocal numbers as well.)
Although created under similar circumstances, Mirror Blue doesn’t have quite the fervent imagination or gusto of Rumor and Sigh. Froom goes a little overboard in the arrangements, bringing back a bit more from his Elvis Costello projects than just drummer Pete Thomas and a hollow snare sound. But audio fingerpainting is not the real problem: few of the songs are as lively or melodically stirring as those on the previous record. Thompson partially compensates by playing a whole lot more guitar, both acoustic and electric. The mighty solo that moans organically out of “The Way That It Shows” is thrilling; and his rock’n’rolling on “Shane and Dixie” is good, exciting fun. But a second song about vintage motors (“MGB-GT”) is one too many, and the lyrics of strong compositions like “Easy There, Steady Now,” “King of Bohemia” and the nearly maudlin “Taking My Business Elsewhere” — sung with a shade too much theatrical flourish — fall too easily into predictable rhymes.
Everything that’s wrong with Mirror Blue is worse on you? me? us?, beginning with the intemperate overabundance of songs. Trotting out eighteen new numbers (too few of which are unexpected or even notably fine ideas), Thompson is entirely too generous, sacrificing full development and consistent quality for a surplus of half- baked goods. (Dividing the two discs into voltage enhanced (mildly electric) and nude (richly acoustic) doesn’t help. The two versions of “Razor Dance” aren’t exactly black and white in tone and typify the album’s miscalculated sense of discretion. The melodramatic “Dark Hand Over My Heart” and “Hide It Away” are typical lovelorn plaints; “The Ghost of You Walks” isn’t very different from “I Misunderstood”; “Cold Kisses” is the token creep song in which the narrator rifles through a girlfriend’s old photographs to check out past lovers. “She Cut off Her Long Silken Hair” is an exquisite folk song, and others have the reliable attributes to pass muster, but it’s a chore fishing through the mediocre many to reach the proud few. Thompson sings like an anxious drama student attempting to impress a fussy elocution teacher, and the production by Froom and Tchad Blake seems to be a replay of their last record with Los Lobos.
Mock Tudor is a welcome return to form, with fine songs like the driving “Cooksferry Queen” (sung with a Bo Diddley beat from the perspective of a mob boss infatuated with his hippie girlfriend) and the slashing “Bathsheba Smiles.” The somber “Walking the Long Miles Home” is one of Thompson’s fine story-songs, and the acoustic “Sights and Sounds of London Town” memorializes the brutal lives of London’s immigrant underclass.
Thompson’s solo work on Capitol was condensed into Action Packed: Best of the Capitol Years, which has little to especially recommend it except a vocal version of “Persuasion” with his son Teddy and the fiery “Fully Qualified to Be Your Man.” “Persuasion,” which originally appeared as an instrumental on the Sweet Talker soundtrack, was given lyrics by Tim Finn and reclaimed for Thompson’s best-of. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward single-disc selection of such songs as “Turning of the Tide” and “Cooksferry Queen.” Of course it overlooks the solo records Thompson released for Hannibal, Polydor, and Island in the UK, so it remains a frustratingly incomplete summation. OK for beginners.
After Capitol, Thompson joined the American imprint of the esteemed British folk label Cooking Vinyl and released The Old Kit Bag. Returning to Biblical themes, he takes on the challenging “Gethsemane” and the sturdy rock number “She Said It Was Destiny,” but also the slow-burn “A Love You Can’t Survive,” which owes something to classic Thompson guitar numbers like “Calvary Cross.” The disc includes a bonus CD of two live covers: the 1505 Italian composition “So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo” and Prince’s “Kiss.”
Thompson has released a number of small projects and live albums via his fanclub, Beeswing, and on boutique labels like Flypaper. They include live records like Two- Letter Words (a Scrabble joke) and live DVDs (of his Austin City Limits appearance and others). Diehard fans will want to track these down, but most listeners will skip them. The exception may be Thompson’s extraordinary 1000 Years of Popular Music project, which Thompson undertook as a rejoinder to Playboy magazine, which had asked for his list of the “best songs of the millennium” in 2000. Calling Playboy‘s bluff, Thompson did just that, listing the 13th-century “Sumer Is Icumen In” and “So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo,” The Who’s “Legal Matter,” Prince’s “Kiss” and Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again!” Then he toured with the project and released a double-CD of his efforts, which makes for some remarkably entertaining listening.
After a layoff of almost two decades, Richard’s ex-wife Linda Thompson returned to solo recording in 2002 with Fashionably Late, whose rueful title belies the evident joy and pure craft of her singing and some fine contemporary folk songs. “Dear Mary” features Richard as well as their son Teddy and daughter Kamila and non-relative Danny Thompson on bass. “The Banks of the Clyde” is a wistful and bitter recollection of a Scotswoman in London; the marvelously detailed “Paint and Powder Beauty” (a Rufus Wainwright song) is a mannered character portrait. The singing and playing is closer in tone to a pure folk record than any of the Richard and Linda albums, but for someone looking for a bridge between June Tabor and contemporary heirs like Sinéad Lohan or Dido, it’s a worthwhile find.