Richard Thompson began recording in 1968 and has been steadily putting out albums ever since. His latest release, Electric (NewWest Records), may or may not be his 40th overall, depending on whether you’re counting all of his band, solo, duet, soundtrack and self-released live sets. His longevity is an admirable achievement on its own, but then when you factor in how consistently excellent his work has been over the years, you get into the territory of the freakish.
As the 19-year-old lead guitarist of Fairport Convention, Thompson helped launch the modern British folk-rock era. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s reconfiguration of traditional American folk songs and the way the Band wrote and recorded original songs that sounded as if they were 100 years old, Fairport electrified traditional British ballads, emphasizing the spooky, often bloody subject matter within. Their original songs, especially Thompson guitar epics like “Crazy Man Michael” and “Sloth,” sounded as if they’d been written and played by wandering minstrels on acid.
After he left Fairport in 1971, Thompson formed a duo with his then-wife Linda Peters, recording a handful of gloomily beautiful records, including I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (my personal favorite) and Shoot Out the Lights (generally considered their masterpiece). When the marriage ended (spectacularly — listen to Shoot Out the Lights), Thompson carried on solo. He has been on major labels. He is now independent. He sells homegrown CD’s at a table at his gigs. Thompson (who is now 63 and lives in Southern California) is idolized by his peers, was named one of the Top 20 greatest guitarists of all-time by Rolling Stone, is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association and an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II. He has never won a Grammy, but maybe that’s to his credit.
On Electric, the ever-restless Thompson decamped to Nashville with the other two-thirds of his electric power-trio, drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, to record at the home studio of producer/songwriter Buddy Miller. Although Thompson has been known to bust out a Hank Williams or Buck Owens song in concert, Electric is the closest thing to a country album Thompson has ever recorded.
He still displays a most English sensibility, though, with a bone-dry sense of humor, a fondness for all that’s bleak and black and an accent so clipped it’s like a dialect of its own. His underrated baritone voice has gotten more expressive and supple over the years. And, as usual, his fleet-fingered, inventive guitar solos manage to be expansive without ever tipping over into self-indulgence. Electric is still a “Richard Thompson record”; nobody else could have written “Stony Ground,” for example, the sort of lurching, hard-rock jig he’s been turning out since “Back Street Slide” off Shoot Out the Lights, with mordantly funny lyrics about the fatal male propensity to think with his trousers. And the wistful, poignant melodies of “My Enemy” and “The Snow Goose” (a hushed duet with Alison Krauss) belong on the long list of Thompson songs (“When the Spell Is Broken,” “Beeswing,” “The End of the Rainbow,” on and on) that can make you cry with just a dip into a minor chord and the slightest catch in his burry voice.
But maybe because of the Nashville vibe, or simply the knowledge that it was recorded there, Electric sets you to thinking about what makes a country song a country song. If all country music is folk music, and all folk music starts with a story that rings some primal bell within the listener, then Thompson, a vivid and captivating storyteller, has always been writing country music. And you can easily imagine a few of Electric‘s portraits of men drowning in loneliness and heartbreak being sung by George Jones or Willie Nelson. The aching “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” calls to mind Jones’ “A Good Year for the Roses,” as Thompson’s narrator watches his wife leaving him, yet can’t quite bring himself to speak ill of her: “Got the kids in the car/Dreams will get you just so far/ Then life gives you bitter pills to savour/ Still she kissed me once more/As she gently slammed the door/That’s another small thing in her favour.” The gently loping “Salford Sunday,” in which a man wakes up to the “cold side of the bed,” is filled with piercing details of bleary isolation that sound like subtle nods to Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Sunday Morning Coming Down”.
And then there’s “Saving the Good Stuff for You” (which Tim McGraw should record without delay), the most countrified song on the record in its rhyme scheme and country-waltz tempo. Thompson has mined his own thorny romantic history only sparingly of late (maybe he got it out of his system with Shoot Out and the two solo albums that immediately followed), preferring to write and sing in character. So to hear such an intimate, emotionally direct declaration of love to his current partner is as startling as it is lovely: “I’m glad that you never did know me/ When I was out of control/ I was hollow right there in the middle/ Some people got sucked in the hole/ But I cut myself loose from the old ways/ And you’re all that I’m clinging to/ All the time, I didn’t know it/ I was saving the good stuff for you.”
At moments like that, Electric takes its place alongside Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball and Bonnie Raitt’s Slipstream as the work of an artist seasoned enough to speak from the heart and free enough to travel whatever musical path beckons.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013