By Richard Thompson’s own estimates, he’s made the best part of 40 albums. Certainly if you include the various live recordings, soundtrack work, fan club and boutique releases you are there or thereabouts. Add in the half a dozen albums made in the nine years with Linda Thompson, and the five made in just the three years with Fairport and the total gets nearer to 50. The point is that as he has said himself, “I know how to make records. I know the process.” He has, however qualified that by adding, “But I also fall into my own patterns and habits.” With an album’s worth of new songs and that in mind, Thompson turned to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as producer for his new album Still. “It turned out to be really good idea. Jeff is musically very sympathetic. Although some of his contributions are probably rather subtle to the listener’s ear, they were really interesting and his suggestions were always very pertinent.” Whilst that line perhaps betrays an element of risk, Richard’s judgment and positivity prove spot on, as Still maintains the standards set by recent records with another great set of songs to add to his extraordinary catalogue.
Pulling Jeff Tweedy in as producer has certainly stirred the pot. Richard, in common with most artists – especially those who are on something of a creative roll – needs to feel excited, engaged and to some degree challenged by the music he’s making. It’s not simply enough to do the same thing over again. Much of his recent work has found Richard in electric mode and also on top form. The run of albums since 2007’s Sweet Warrior have arguably been amongst his best. They have certainly been amongst his most successful, with three consecutive Top 20 chart placings in the UK.
Whilst such landmarks are perhaps not necessarily what they once were and not really a measure of Richard Thompson’s worth, they are testament to an enduring career. Apart from one or two forays into video making around the start of the 90s and the release of Rumour And Sigh, Richard has never really been marketed as a pop/rock star with chart aspirations anyway. That said, that album made good showings just outside the UK’s Top 30 and the follow up did even better. Largely, however, his success has come instead through keeping hold of a solid fan-base by releasing consistently good records and maintaining a pretty busy tour diary. Hence the title of the new record in a way, Still, as in… Still here!
Richard has shown a willingness to experiment before and not always to his immediate advantage. He made a series of albums with Mitchel Froom in the 80s and through into the 90s that led up to his previous commercial peak. It first saw Richard decamp to America, also using American musicians, which drew criticism at the time that now seems rather harsh, with suggestions that he’d sold out. Nonetheless, Rumour And Sigh was one of those records and was followed by the more experimental Mirror Blue. This also attracted negative press, with Froom being made the villain, but suggestions are that Richard was more than willing to follow that route and again, hindsight creates the context that serves the record rather better than any contemporaneous, snap judgment calls.
Since then Richard has turned to a handful of producers and also shared a partnership with Simon Tassano that started with the deliberately stripped back Front Parlour Ballads, a record designed to be exactly what the title inferred, home recordings. That relationship also ran through the recent, electric Sweet Warrior, and Dream Attic. They also worked together on two boutique recordings, Live Warrior and Carnival Of Souls. For his Electric album (2013) Richard turned to Buddy Miller, a highly regarded, Nashville based musician and songwriter himself, who was part of Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy. He proved to be a safe set of hands and ears.
Even if you subscribe to the criticism of previous periods or individual records in Richard’s long career, there’s little danger of such thoughts taking root in listening to Still. In its own way there is just as much experimentation going on as there was 21 years ago. Jeff Tweedy makes his presence known, but it’s mostly subtle, adding atmosphere as much as additional instrumentation, although he does play guitar and keyboards. There’s additional backing also from guitarist Jim Elkington of Jeff’s band Tweedy and harmony vocalists Liam Cunningham, his sister Sima Cunningham (both of Tweedy), and Siobhan Kennedy. Richard of course plays guitar and sings, while his favoured, long-term rhythm section of Taras Prodaniuk, and drummer Michael Jerome are naturally present.
She Never Could Resist A Winding Road gets us off to a gentle enough start with its waltz time acoustic arpeggio, but there’s a strange delayed echo on Richard’s voice that sounds somehow dislocated, unconnected perhaps. It’s as if the hopes of the unknown are balanced by the loneliness inherent in lines like, “It’s not that she don’t care about you, Say you love her, she don’t doubt you, But she can learn to live without you, When she hears the call.” There are a couple of delicious, meandering electric guitar breaks too, that immediately signpost the way towards the heart of this album.
That said, acoustic guitars, cleverly double tracked and syncopated against each other, dance a bright and merry tune around Beatnik Walking as this time the journey is best foot forward with Amsterdam in Richard’s sights, as he sings, “Hand me down my walking shoes, Got to leave these beatnik blues behind.”
It’s the details in the songs that make them believable, even if they can’t possibly all be autobiographical. Were they so, you’d have to think Richard particularly unlucky in love. Patty Don’t You Put Me Down, is a kind-of Nick Cave style blues with a killer guitar lick, that finds a double dealing woman who might be in for an unexpected jolt, “In your ten-watt world it’s beyond any pleasure you know, To stick your fingers in the socket, and give yourself a glow.” The wistful Where’s Your Heart, which features some of Richard’s liquid guitar lines, wonders about the puzzles of love and rather witheringly questions, “So strange to hear you talk about love, Is it just yourself you’re enamoured of?”
Broken Doll is more troubled; the anxiety is raised by the odd dip into discord, but with a nagging guitar riff like a wonky re-working of Every Breath You Take. Whilst that song suggested control this is the opposite as things are perhaps beyond repair in the poignant, “All the tears in the world won’t mend a broken doll.” There’s another sad, dreamy acoustic affair with Josephine. There’s just a hint of lonesome organ high in the background and some truly beautiful playing.
All Buttoned Up is a wry take on a playboy who isn’t getting what he wants, his libidinous frustrations boiling up over another of Richard’s clever circular riffs. It’s suitably tongue in cheek, even if it gets borderline Neanderthal with, “I got desires – raging fires but I’ll do the right thing, won’t I?”
There are several rockers and Long John Silver motors along with typical guitar flourishes and another stunning brace of solos as Richard cautions, “Not every pirate’s sailing the sea,” suggesting a shady deal somewhere down the line. Pony In The Stable is the most immediately off-kilter sound, with its combination of quick fire percussion and mandolin that suddenly blossoms into something far more complex, like Frank Zappa leading the morris!
There’s rage stoking the engine of No Peace No End as it hurtles along with a dim view of the world and the constant call to arms. That dim view is coloured by the sentiments of Dungeons For Eyes and coming face to face with a man who has ordered people to be killed, “Mephistopheles shorn of his tail.” Richard finds he cannot forgive and forget. It’s a powerful and dramatic piece.
Finally, to finish the album, we do get a slice of autobiography with Guitar Heroes, as Richard indulges himself, much to the frustration of parents, schoolteachers, mates and his girlfriend who threatens to dump him, as his first love is clearly his guitar. There are some clever homages to some of his heroes, which will probably get a work over live at some point, as there are doubtless many ways to extend the pantheon of guitar greats, whom Richard has tried to copy and learn from at various times. Well the practice sure as hell paid off and those who doubted it have surely had their comeuppance. It’s seven and half minutes even imagines some of his heroes jamming together, but concludes with, the admission, “I still don’t know how my heroes did it.” Therein lies the problem that will perplex anyone who tries to follow in Richard’s footsteps.
While the venue for the recording offered up a veritable Aladdin’s cave of musical instruments, especially guitars, some of which are used here, Richard was disciplined, working quickly to make the album in just nine days of recording. Some of the guitar playing on this record is, of course, sheer off the scale for technical brilliance and melodic invention, yet every note is there to serve the songs. Amongst all of the accolades for his fretboard finesse, it’s the songs that keep us coming back and here he’s exceled again. If there’s anger to be found on Still as he puts down double dealers and schemers, reserving his bitterest barbs for those who should be leading us towards a better world, there’s hurt and vulnerability too, but there’s also humour in the softer focus view of our all too human foibles. It’s finely judged and proof that he’s still setting challenges and meeting them head on to triumphant effect while measuring his success, not by chart placings, but by the hearts he touches. It’s the connection Still makes with you that matters so, “…stick your fingers in the socket, and give yourself a glow!”
Review by: Simon Holland
RICHARD THOMPSON ELECTRIC TRIO – UK TOUR DATES
28 Aug – Wareham, Dorset Purbeck Valley Folk Festival (solo)
30 Aug – Shrewsbury Shrewsbury Folk Festival
01 Sep – Dublin Vicar Street
02 Sep – Perth Perth Concert Hall
03 Sep – Aberdeen Aberdeen Music Hall
05 Sep – Edinburgh Queens Hall
06 Sep – Gateshead Sage
08 Sep – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
09 Sep – Salford Lowry
10 Sep – Sheffield City Hall
12 Sep – Nottingham Royal Centre
13 Sep – Birmingham Symphony Hall
15 Sep – Cardiff St. David’s Hall
16 Sep – Bristol Colston Hall
18 Sep – Ipswich Regent Theatre
19 Sep – Cambridge Corn Exchange
20 Sep – London Royal Festival Hall