When it comes to justifiably revered cult artists who continue to create at a high level decades after their illustrious beginnings, Richard Thompson is the one who has never had any hits.
Even Randy “Short People” Newman and Loudon “Dead Skunk” Wainwright III have the British singer and guitarist beat.
Sad but true: Thompson has never made a successful assault on the pop charts. Not with wry and richly detailed signature songs such as “Tear-Stained Letter” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” nor during his brilliant beginnings with English folk-rock innovators Fairport Convention, or with his masterful 1970s collaborations with his then-wife Linda Thompson.
The closest Richard Thompson has come to the mainstream in recent years, in fact, has been with his show-stopping cover of Britney Spears’ “Oops! ... I Did It Again,” which brought his 2003 live album “1,000 Years of Popular Music” to a chronological climax.
But while the 60-year-old songwriter lags in popular success, he leads the way in box-set enshrinement. The brand-new four-CD set, “Richard Thompson: Walking on a Wire, 1968-2009” (Shout Factory, 3 1/2 stars), is not the first, nor the second, but the third Thompson box. It follows the 1993 three-CD set, “Watching the Dark,” which suffered from a jumbled chronology, and the 2006 rarities-focused five-disc box, “RT,” released on the British Free Reed label.
“Walking on a Wire” takes a more straightforward approach and serves as an 81-song introduction to an artist whose prodigious skills as both a lyricist and a guitarist are pretty much unequaled among ‘60s-schooled rock titans. Only heavyweights like Neil Young and Prince are in Thompson’s league when it comes to combined prowess as a writer and a lead player.
As a wordsmith, Thompson is a storyteller steeped in the tradition of English balladry, as evidenced by such early Fairport compositions as “Genesis Hall” through solo works like the Elvis fan’s sojourn “From Galway to Graceland.”
Though his reputation as a sourpuss is well earned — see the exquisitely bummed wrist-slasher “Withered and Died” — he also wields a devilish, razorlike wit, as evidenced by such “Walking” cuts as the self-lacerating “Read About Love.”
“Walking” doesn’t go out of its way to cater to guitar geeks, but there’s plenty of fancy fretwork. It’s always in the service of the song, however, even when Thompson is stretching out, for example, on the increasingly dizzying coda on a live version of “Tear-Stained Letter.” (That’s the one that rhymes “My head was beating like a song by the Clash” with “It was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash.”)
Thompson distinguishes himself among players of jaw-dropping technical prowess in that he rarely overplays and is equally at home when electrified or unplugged. One of “Walking’s” shortcomings — along with the omission of the Spears cover — is that it contains nothing from “Small Town Romance,” the 1984 solo venture that demonstrates how pleasurable he can be with only a gruff voice and an acoustic guitar.
So if Thompson is so great, how come he’s not more popular? Part of it is that dour English folk-rock sensibility. His music is far from joyless: “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight,” the title cut of the 1974 Richard and Linda album, could give Pink’s let’s-get-this-party-started a run for the money. But there tends to be disquieting trouble waiting around the bend.
When he writes about fairground attractions, it’s either the perilous tightrope walk of “The Great Valerio” or the Byrdsy chime of “Wall of Death,” which provides the thrill that’s “the nearest to being alive.”
And then there’s that gruff voice, neither pretty nor designed for mass consumption. Early in his career, Thompson’s voice was balanced by the cool, clear tones of two of the most luminous female voices in folk-music history: Fairport’s Sandy Denny, and Linda Thompson, whose warm, soulful expressiveness marks her, for my money, as the greatest of English folk sirens.
‘Walking’ includes 21 songs with Richard and his ex. Thompson has never found a foil so perfectly suited to him in his quarter-century solo career since his celebrated 1982 pairing with Linda, ‘Shoot Out the Lights.” But he has made many a fine album in the meantime, from consensus highlights such as 1991’s “Rumour & Sigh” to 1999’s “Mock Tudor,” which he considers his best.
Not all of his efforts have been up to his highest standards.
“The Rock Snob Dictionary” isn’t far off base when it calls Thompson’s solo work “intelligent but never transcendentally great” (though it does him a disservice by lumping him in an “overpraised” ghetto with Ron Sexsmith, Freedy Johnston and Vic Chesnutt).
Over the years, Thompson has been far more consistent than, say, the occasionally transcendentally great Neil Young, and “Walking on a Wire” does a fine job of gathering the strongest of his work. It’ll do, until the fourth box set comes along.