Folk-rocker Richard Thompson is at that point in his career where he could be called an elder, and, as such, the accolades have poured in during recent years to reward him for that stature. He earned MOJO magazine’s Les Paul Award, Britain’s Ivor Novello Award, and he won a 2012 Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Aberdeen University in his ancestral Scotland, and also obtained an Order of the British Empire (OBE), granted to Thompson by Queen Elizabeth II for his longstanding service to music, one that covers a 45-year terrain. So now, as a cap on all these accomplishments, Thompson has a new album out there called Electric. The title is actually a bit of a misnomer as you’ll find acoustic folksy ballads on the record along with the more bracing rockin’ numbers. Still, Electric is a fine testament to a revered musician, one that simply puts a seal on a long and storied career. It isn’t particularly revelatory, nor does it boast a classic number along the lines of a “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or even a “Beeswing”, but the material is generally fairly strong, and it showcases Thompson’s out-of-sight guitar chops, the kind of thing that makes him a perennial favorite of Rolling Stone magazine.
Recorded during a four-day session with Buddy Miller in Nashville, Electric sees Thompson calling in favors from everyone from guest Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Siobham Maher Kennedy, formerly of the English band River City People (she sings harmonies on five songs here), and even Alison Krauss, who duets with Thompson on the, sorry, electrifying ballad “The Snow Goose”. The album, though, is a showcase for Thompson’s current trio approach with drummer Michael Jerome (Better Than Ezra, John Cale) and bassist Tara Prodaniuk (Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello) providing backing muscle and grit to these sometimes rocking, sometimes bluesy and sometimes country sounds. (They are, however, conspicuously absent from the folksier ballads that finish off the album.) As a whole package, Electric is a mile marker for where Thompson now stands as a statesman for a particular brand of music that is singularly original in execution and vision. Even when he’s on auto pilot, and there are a few of those moments especially in the middle section of the record, Thompson is usually a spectacle to behold. (I say “usually” as I’m not particularly fond of the excessively varnished Across a Crowded Room from 1985.) With expressive songs and boisterous clamour, Electric is a taster for much of the styles and musical ground that Thompson has covered throughout his career, and then some.
The album opens with “Stoney Ground”, a nearly five-minute barroom stomper that comes complete with hand claps and a gritty guitar line that is somewhat bluesy. The thing with the song that makes it endearing is that it has a folk feel to it, so it effectively crosses and blurs the line between musical genres. And, of course, it offers a great deal in terms of Thompson’s patented brand of guitar heroics during the solos, and it becomes evident why he’s considered one of the best guitarists of his generation. At 63 years of age, “Stoney Ground” shows that Thompson has no inclination of slowing down, or going gently into that good night. It’s an effective piece of rock and roll, even though you do get the sense that Thompson could write this sort of thing in his sleep. In actuality, it’s not too far removed from Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”, so be forgiven if you think you’ve heard this sort of thing before. Still, it definitely holds its own. From there, things take a turn into softer, yet still bluesy territory with “Salford”. It’s another song that could almost pass for folk, despite the presence of an electric guitar, and its mandolin touches during part of the song almost move it into the country department. At this point, it’s pretty apparent that Thompson is interested here in mashing styles together, making him the musical equivalent of an early Jonathan Lethem (if I can draw an analogy into the world of books). From there, things take a poisonous turn with the scathing “Sally B”, which, too, features thrilling guitar licks and is probably one of the more straight-up rockers on the record, along with follow-up song “Stuck on the Treadmill”, a paean to the frustrations of working class life.
However, from there, the album takes a slight nose-dive in quality. “My Enemy”, which is perhaps meant to compliment Steely Dan’s “My Rival”, does boast a sweetly memorable chorus, but the rest of the song feels rote and overtly melancholic. It also runs on for a mostly unnecessary five minutes plus, and is among the most lackluster things to be found on Electric. While “Good Things Happen to Bad People” is a slight uptick, and is the track being to promote the record, it kind of feels like a Bonnie Riatt cast off. “Where’s Home?” feels ordinary and seems buried in the middle of the record; it’s a possible candidate for a B-side as it just doesn’t really stick out in any outstanding way. It’s a fairly forgettable country rocker. And then there’s “Straight and Narrow”, which does boast a nice Farfisa organ touch. However, there’s a lyric here that I have to wonder if it’s a matter of a listener (me) unintentionally mishearing something: “She walks on clouds of glory / It’ll make you take a shit, boys / Make you take a shit.” Honestly? Did I just hear that? If so, consider it a candidate for the worst line of 2013, and I realize that the year is still quite young.
But then things right-side up with the final two songs: “The Snow Goose” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You”. While “The Snow Goose” won’t take any awards for being the best Thompson acoustic ballad, it is bracing and quite effective with just Thompson and his acoustic guitar—augmented by the saccharine voice of Krauss during the chorus. It’s nice to hear this side of Thompson returning to the fore, and it is an agreeable stab of folk from a man who cut his teeth in the genre. “Saving the Good Stuff for You”, meanwhile, is a great country song with a careening fiddle, and is a mediation on Thompson growing old: “I’ve seen trouble from every direction / My old head is peppered with gray / I could never resist life’s temptations / Oh, they just seemed to fall in my way.” And then, in a particularly confessional note, he adds, “I’ve had wives and I’ve treated them badly / Maybe a lover or two.” As a look back on his personal life, and possibly a nod to his ex-wife Linda, “Saving the Good Stuff for You” is a captivating track that will leave the listener hanging onto every word.
While there isn’t anything that is out and out dross at least musically on Electric, it does have its shares of up and downs. That said, much of the material, particularly in the first clutch of songs and its final two tracks, is nearly top-drawer Thompson, and sees him generally letting his hair down and letting his guitar do much of the talking. Electric feels, at times, carefully constructed, making it hard to believe that this was recorded in a four day stretch. (I suppose that only underscores the value of rehearsing your material to the point of exhaustion.) For an artist that is at the age that Thompson is, Electric mostly proves that he is still a vital and non-expendable force in the music world. It’s great to hear someone making music that is largely this thrilling and exciting, and blurring genres together as he does so. While Thompson can be occasionally guilty of the odd lyrical lapse and settling into convention a little too snugly, Electric is a remarkably good album from someone easing into his twilight years. It’s not his best album—I have a soft spot for Shoot Out the Lights (naturally; who doesn’t?) and even You? Me? Us? (an album that polarized fans when it came out, but I really enjoyed it)—but it’s generally a pretty strong and consistent work. As a member of the elder tribe, Richard Thompson isn’t exactly overtly reinventing things, but his songwriting is dependable and he positions himself as a true treasure. At least with Electric, he doesn’t embarrass himself by pretending to act his age or be something that he’s not. For fans, it’s likely that such will be all you’ll want, making Electric a fairly solid and consistent addition to the impressive and otherworldly canon of Richard Thompson.
// Notes from the Road
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