After a night of watching Richard Thompson play guitar, longtime indie-rocker Bob Mould (no six-string slouch himself) once said that he was ready to give up playing. Such is the response often engendered by musicians who witness this underrated legend. In the 35-plus years Thompson has been making music, he's recorded more than 20 albums, and developed an ardent cult following who appreciate his supple, awe-inspiring guitar solos and dark lyrical wit. While he's never had a breakthrough radio hit in America, there's not an artist from the '60s (with the possible exception of Neil Young) who has continued to release albums of such consistently high quality.
Thompson's live performances are just as noteworthy; his solos tend to be more extended, openly displaying his virtuoso skills. Yet for all his technical mastery, the extraordinary thing about his playing is the way he circles each song's melodic sensibility as though it were prey, without losing the thread of the song or descending into self-conscious flash. His sharp, literate wit and predilection for intriguing parables that question the pain and misery we court in life are a tremendous asset, but it's his stupefying mastery of the strings and their possibilities that dumbfounds most witnesses.
Thompson began his recording career with the seminal British folk act Fairport Convention in 1968. As Thompson would continue to do throughout his career, Fairport drew on a mix of harmony-based Byrds-inspired folk rock and revved-up traditional English ballads and folk tunes that adeptly mixed electric and acoustic instrumentation. In 1972, after five Fairport albums including Liege and Lief, considered by many the best British folk rock album of all time, Thompson struck out on his own. A year later he married singer Linda Peters, and began recording their first album together, I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight.
The collaboration proved a propitious one, producing several standout albums, including Thompson's best critically received album, 1982's Shoot Out the Lights, called by Rolling Stone one of the ten best of the decade. Recorded as the Thompsons' union edged toward dissolution (though most of the songs were written two years earlier), Shoot Out the Lights' spare production lets an undertow of frustration and dread drive the album, cutting through music with raw emotional electricity that feeds songs like "Wall of Death," and "Walking on a Wire."
While continuing to release consistently terrific albums, Thompson's next breakthrough wouldn't come until 1991's Rumor and Sigh, recorded with Mitchell Froom. Brighter and richer than the understated production which rules most of his catalog, it remains one of his best-selling albums, with two of his best odes to life on the other side of the law, "I Feel So Good," about a juvie fresh from incarceration, and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a haunting song about love and commitment that injects a hot bike into the classic ballad subject of a good woman falling for a noble criminal.
Two more Mitchell Froom-produced albums were released in the '90s. Though featuring material at least as strong as that on Rumor and Sigh, the albums suffer from Froom's heavy hand. Thompson's gifts need little adornment and yet both Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us? seem to swim in overwrought production, including Froom's signature tinny drum sound and far-too-prevalent keyboards.
Thompson split with Froom in 1999, and recorded Mock Tudor with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck), his best album since Rumor & Sigh. Clean and direct like his '80s albums, Mock Tudor is a concept album of sorts set in the suburbs. Thompson traces by-now-familiar themes of thwarted, failed and unrequited romance, but the songs are shadowed by a sense of isolation and desolation. Tracks such as the missed-bus meditation, "Walking the Long Miles Home," and the dark, hustler tale, "Sights and Sounds of London Town," question the safety and security we expect from the suburbs by positing it against the emptiness we guard so resolutely.
The Old Kit Bag, Thompson's latest album, and his first for an independent (in this case, SpinArt Records) since 1985, follows the path of Mock Tudor, paring down the instrumentation, keeping it and the production lean and direct. Despite its stripped down, live sound, the music really rings out, and there is hardly a wasted note or missed opportunity. The songs are uniformly excellent including the stirring "Outside of the Inside," which probes a man blinded by faith, a scathing indictment Thompson has introduced on tour as "a song about how the Taliban sees the West."
In fact, the writing on Kit Bag may be Thompson's best and most straightforward in years, echoing the production strategy. Among the highlights are the panhandler's tale, "Pearly Jim," and the album-opening meditation on lost time and life, "Gethsemane." What's not missing from the album are Thompson's fluid, tumbling solos which dot songs such as "Jealous Words," and "A Love You Can't Survive," and feature the kind of heat and electricity Clapton could only imagine at this point in his career.
It's probably too late for Thompson to ever achieve the commercial success he so richly deserves, but given his remarkable staying power and the consistent quality of his releases, there's little reason to kvetch. A sterling guitarist and underrated lyricist, we can take heart in the knowledge that Thompson's shown no sign of slowing down, and continues to proffer moments of sublime guitar beauty to those lucky enough to witness it.