Still at it?
A teenage Thompson, then an up and coming guitar hotshot with Fairport Convention, was in the studio for the first time in 1967 and, apart from a brief spell in the mid seventies, has been at it ever since: Touring, writing, recording, putting out new albums. Old enough to have a bus pass (if such a thing is available in Los Angeles which has been his base, but, you feel, not his home town, for decades now), his energy seems undimmed, his work ethic considerable, his creative juices still flow and there seems to be no end in sight.
“Consistency” is the word. He’s never had big hits, but he keeps on generating new material. Since he’s never had hits as most people count them he doesn’t do nostalgia rich live shows that take us back to his and our own best days. He just keeps on at it, seemingly in a state of grace where he has no expectations to fulfil. Since the turn of the millenium he’s put out eight albums of new material, a movie soundtrack, four DVDs, five live albums (more if you count the archive material he’s released), made an album with the various musical members of his extended family, and toured in all sorts of configurations from solo acoustic to his current electric power trio.
He always likes to get new material into his show even at the expense of crowd favourites. When I saw him Wolverhampton in 2007 he played a show of over two hours without getting any of the likely crowd pleasers. In fact you sensed he was a little bit chuffed to NOT play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or “Shoot Out The Lights”. A large chunk of the show was given over to material from his then new album Sweet Warrior. There’s not a lot of laurels to rest on, and what are there he usually finds a way around.
Recent set lists show over half the show coming from the last four new albums.
The most recent of these was recorded in just nine days earlier this year, in Jeff Tweedy’s loft studio cum rehearsal space in Chicago. Tweedy produced and, according to Thompson, had a lot of input that mostly won’t be discernible to the listener. There’s the occasional obvious piece of production – like the delay effect on the vocals on the opening track, but the way you notice it most is the players he bought to the session, and especially Jim Elkington who proves to be a capable and simpatico guitar foil for Thompson. I honestly think it’s time to expand the power trio, Elkington adds that much.
Thompson’s playing is, unsurprisingly, at a high standard throughout and he remains inimitable as a soloist. And vital. The last thing you’d say about Thompson is that he’s phoning it in. Again his form shows little sign of waning. Another case of “Still”.
This is the most stripped down album he’s delivered in years. He’s not hidden his guitar playing under a bushel, but on the last few albums his has not been the only instrumental voice in the spotlight. On Still there’s no fiddle, little mandolin, Elkington gets no solos and any keyboards are just there for background texture. So it’s very much the sound of Thompson’s guitar. Despite emerging from 60s England Thompson is rooted in something other than the blues.
Indeed he gives us an insight into those roots on the closing song “Guitar Heroes”. It’s an odd choice, possibly an unworthy choice for a Richard Thompson song. It’s almost completely artless and some of the lyrics are not… amongst his finest (and Thompson the songwriter has shone as brightly as Thompson the guitarist and so his finest is pretty fine indeed). The song takes us back to Thompson the teenage guitar nerd, cloistered in his bedroom practising the licks he’s heard on records and trying to figure out what makes his idols tick as players. The idols he presents here are Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and Hank Marvin. He reproduces a signature piece by each player. These sound very accurate and they convince and display not inconsiderable skill (including the skill of mimicry) but it’s an odd thing for a songwriter of Thompson’s renown to tackle and it seems out of place. The run up to this song is the terrific, flat out “No Peace, No End” and then the controlled fury of “Dungeons For Eyes”. Then we get a stop start song that comes across as a sort of nerd’s answer to “Guitar Jamboree”.
The other false song writing note is “Beatnik Walking”, a memoir of a pleasant time that Thompson spent in Amsterdam. It’s completely and accurately autobiographical and quite by the way. I’m glad he enjoyed Amsterdam, but so what?
This is a bit harsh, but he has so many great songs in his catalogue one is entitled to be fussy. It is, as David Byrne once said of Thompson, what he deserves for being so good.
The other songs are more typically Thompson in terms of content and form, and he still has surprises up his sleeve. The opening “She Never Could Resist A Winding Road” is somehow typically Thompson and yet novel. It has the sort of stirring and easily memorable and singable melody of a great folk song, yet it is entirely his. The guitar solos actually owe little to any of the guitar heroes he later enumerates and is full of licks from the world of piping. “Long John Silver” is about a pirate who doesn’t operate from sea. The song’s stronger for not not getting too specific, a device which allows the listener to identify, to say “yes, I know who he’s talking about” even though we probably don’t. Typically for Thompson the mayhem and skulduggery in the lyric is set against a light hearted, up tempo melody.
“No Peace, No End” is the most unambiguously angry song he’s recorded since he stuck the boot into Maggie Thatcher on “Mother Knows Best”. The band tears through this and Thompson’s solo takes no prisoners. “Dungeons For Eyes” tells of his feelings on being introduced to a politician with blood on his hands. Again (and possibly out of fear of a law suit) he doesn’t get too specific about the object of his revulsion, but the revulsion is clear.
Often the songs, like his guitar playing, are peppered with references to rather non-rock ‘n roll forms – mostly English. You may spot them (I think I got a few) but more importantly you will notice the effect, the details and harmonic ideas that present themselves as unusual and engaging colour in a rock context. His skill (or one of his skills) is to present these elements in a non jarring way. Despite the two clunkers I’ve detailed his form is still strong (there’s that word again).
Thompson has been getting rave reviews for at least the last dozen or so years since he parted ways with a major label and went independent, and his chart performance have improved, especially in the UK. This may be less to do with increased sales and more to do with his fans still buying actual CDs. It almost doesn’t matter. He’s never had a big hit, it’s nearly two decades since he even came close (with the Grammy nominated Rumor and Sigh) and nothing is likely to change now. The advantage that he has is that the relative lack of signature tunes and the lack of the burden of expectations has left him in a state of grace, able to make the records he wants to and able to pursue a unique musical vision.
Thompson is no quick snack, but he’s built one of the strongest, most consistent bodies of work in popular music and one of the longest running. Others have written songs as good or played guitar solos as thrilling, but few have done both at high level and for as long as Thompson. Still doesn’t feel like a footnote, more like another strong chapter in a story that’s going to run for some time yet.