Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson is a double-threat artist: both one of the 20th century’s most distinguished and accomplished songwriters, and a guitarist almost without peer. (To call him a triple threat would be a bit of a stretch: he’s a fine singer, but not an exceptional one.) Over the past 50 years he has created an astonishing catalog of work – not because he works unusually fast and releases large amounts of material, but because he works steadily and consistently, ceaselessly turning out high-quality songs and presenting them in a variety of settings and styles. From his early work as a founding member of the pioneering Britfolk band Fairport Convention to his duo albums with then-wife Linda Peters to his subsequent 40 years of solo work, he has steadily produced songs that owe little stylistic allegiance to his times while playing guitar in a style that is not only virtuosic, but also utterly personal and unique in both tone and musical content.

His guitar playing is worth a brief side note. While most electric guitarists of his generation built their approaches on American blues and R&B, the foundation of Thompson’s style is almost entirely British: when he bends a note, it sounds like Northumbria or Glasgow rather than Mississippi or Chicago; his rhythmic structures owe more to strathspeys and polkas than to funk or soul. He rocks as hard as anyone, but never sounds like anything other than what he is: an Englishman, reinventing the structures of rock and roll through the eyes and ears of a very different culture.

In addition to his innovative and unique guitar playing, Thompson has always been noted for the dour and acerbic nature of his songs. He has observed in the past that those who hear only misery and bile in his writing are missing his sense of humor, and he has a point – but in fairness, the humor is sometimes hidden pretty deeply. It’s hard to misread lines like “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow/There’s nothing to grow up for anymore” or  “My dreams are withered and died.” 

After leaving Fairport, Thompson undertook a brief but illustrious career as half of a duo with his wife Linda; their marital and musical union produced six albums, the last of which, Shoot Out the Lights, is one of the most searing portraits of a dissolving marriage in pop music history. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #9 in its list of the best albums of the 1980s, and it’s easy to see why: the songs are tight, the lyrics sharp and incisive, the musicianship exquisite. 

Following their divorce, Thompson embarked on a solo career that has produced little in the way of international hit songs, but lots of world-class music. Highlights have included Amnesia (with its heartbreaking portrait of a fading bombshell and the sharply anti-American “Yankee, Go Home”), Rumor and Sigh (which features his biggest American hit, “I Feel So Good” as well as the brilliant motorcycle-rebel parody song “Vincent Black Lightning”), and Sweet Warrior. His fan base remains modest in size but international in scope – and doggedly faithful.

You? Me? Us? cover

Richard Thompson’s ninth solo album is a bit of a conceptual oddity: it consists (unnecessarily, given its total length) of two CDs, one of which features Thompson with an electric band, while the other finds him working in an acoustic mode with minimal additional accompaniment. (Two songs from the electric disc are featured in different arrangements on the acoustic one.) Familiar themes of romantic uncertainty (“Am I Wasting My Love on You”) and class distrust (“Put It There Pal”) continue to loom large — and the presence of Thompson’s son Teddy portends what would become an admirable musical career on the latter’s part.

Strict Tempo! cover

Strict Tempo! is an oddity in Richard Thompson’s discography: an all-instrumental album. On it he expresses his love for the various strains of traditional music that shaped him as a guitarist and that have continued to influence his own writing: Scottish pipe tunes, Irish jigs and reels, Morris tunes, and ceilidh-ready polkas. There’s also a fun arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and a solitary original composition, “The Knife-Edge.” Thompson is joined by his trusty drummer Dave Mattacks, but otherwise plays all the instruments himself.

1000 Years Of Popular Music cover

Having been queried (along with many other celebrated songwriters) by Rolling Stone magazine about what he believed to be the best songs of the past 1,000 years, and having concluded that by “1,000 years” the magazine really only meant the 20th century, Richard Thompson decided to actually go back 1,000 years and gather the best songs he could find. The result was a tour during which his concerts worked their way through the whole history of Anglo-European-American song, beginning with the medieval “Sumer Is Icumen In” and ending with Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again.” This live album is a document of that project and tour, and it’s a delight.

Amnesia cover

Amnesia is an underrated Richard Thompson solo album, on that is well worth one’s attention even if only for two songs: “Turning of the Tide” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers.” The former is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of an aging party girl (possibly a prostitute, though it’s not clear), while the latter takes Thompson’s usual romantic skepticism and express it in a weary but not exactly cynical manner. The instrumental backing is provided by a combination of American session players and several of his more familiar collaborators from the British Isles, notably accordionist John Kirkpatrick and fiddler Aly Bain. (And yes, that’s Tony Levin playing Chapman Stick on “Don’t Tempt Me” — not a sound one would normally expect on a Thompson album.)

Daring Adventures cover

Say what you like about the influence producer Mitchell From had on Richard Thompson’s sound — on Daring Adventures (the first of their five albums together) Thompson sounds like a man unleashed. Whether he’s criticizing a woman for her punky fashion sense (“A Bone Through Her Nose”) or using train design as a metaphor for existential anxiety (“Dead Man’s Handle”) or using the death of a great music-hall singer to illuminate the fate of a whole generation of English soldiers (“Al Bowlly’s in Heaven”), he writes and sings with acute and often painful insight, and he plays like the devil is chasing him.

Hand Of Kindness cover

After his divorce from wife and musical partner Linda Peters, Richard Thompson launched immediately into what would turn out to be a celebrated solo career. Hand of Kindness was its first recorded product, and it’s fair to say that you can still hear him working out his marital issues: “Tear-stained Letter” could hardly be more direct, and song titles like “A Poisoned Heart and a Twisted Memory” and “The Wrong Heartbeat” give you a good idea of what to expect as well. But the music is thrilling, and his guitar playing cuts to the heart.

Sweet Warrior cover

On Richard Thompson’s thirteenth solo album he revisits a theme upon which he had touched before at various points in his songwriting career: the plight of the soldier. “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” references military slang for the city of Baghdad, while “Johnny’s Far Away” explores the common topic of sexual temptation for married sailors on assignment, and “Guns Are the Tongues” comes at the same general idea from a slightly different angle, portraying a crew run by a female crime boss. Thompson’s acerbic insight and eye for the sharp detail continue to serve him well here.

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight cover

The first album by Richard and Linda Thompson remains not only one of their two best, but also one of the most enduring artifacts of British folk-rock. The title track manages simultaneously to convey party-hearty eagerness and world-weary exhaustion; “The Little Beggar Girl” uses music-hall tropes to create a snide commentary on the ruling class, and “The Great Valerio” is a metaphor for existential angst. If all of that sounds like a pretty heavy conceptual burden for a folk-rock album, well, it is — and the fact that the Thompsons carry it off so well is a tribute to Richard’s taste and skill as a songwriter and Linda’s as an interpreter.

Rumor and Sigh cover

Richard Thompson’s seventh solo album is perhaps his most celebrated, and was nominated for a Grammy when it was released in 1992. The album did well in the UK, and the single “I Feel So Good” was a modest hit on American radio, but the album’s real highlights are two odes to romantic bewilderment (“I Misunderstood” and “You Dream Too Much”) and a despairing plea to a toxic ex-girlfriend (“Keep Your Distance”) — plus the utterly brilliant “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” on which Thompson takes the motorcycle-rebel trope and creates a new and entirely English setting for it.

Shoot Out the Lights cover

Regularly hailed as one of the best albums of the 1980s, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights is as notable for being a spectacularly bitter document of a failing marriage as for the power and sharpness of its songs (and Thompson’s guitar solos). Song titles like “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” and “A Man in Need” are not exactly subtle, and you can hear the desperation and heartache in Linda’s voice as clearly as you can in Richard’s keening, caterwauling solos. And this recording of “Walking on a Wire” is one of the most affecting performances of one of the most powerfully despairing songs in all of pop music history.

Watching the Dark cover

Watching the Dark is that most frustrating of thing for a longstanding fan: a retrospective box set that consists mainly of music the fan already owns, but also includes enough new and previously unreleased material that it’s hard to resist buying it. For relative newcomers to Richard Thompson’s music, though, this three-disc set is an unalloyed treasure. It includes highlights from his work as a founding member of Fairport Convention and from his albums with ex-wife Linda, as well as live versions of some of his best solo work and a good number of previously unreleased tracks. The highlight is a nearly seven-minute-long live version of “Tear-stained Letter” that features one of the most aggressive and inventive guitar solos of his career.