“If I only had an opening line,” Teddy Thompson sings on his latest release, “Well, I’m sure the rest would turn out fine.” Well, Thompson’s got himself much more than a noteworthy beginning. The singer-songwriter’s CD is packed with inspired lyrical inventions and terrific musicality. The 11 songs (and one bonus track) continually delight the listener with their intelligence and heart.
While the music is definitely contemporary, with its solid beats and current cultural references, Thompson’s songs are reminiscent of an earlier era of sophisticated lyrics (e.g. Cole Porter). The son of folk-rock notables Richard and Linda Thompson urbanely sings and writes about suicide, dissipation, alcoholism, drugs, and even love and happiness with verve and wit. He knows how to capture the mood with a simple phrase, or how to twist a line to reveal a hidden meaning.
Thompson can sincerely deliver a candid phrase like, “I figured it out / I need you” or put on a straight face and deadpan, “The morning is bright as Rapper’s Delight / Floats up to my room from the street” to convey his protagonists’ varied emotional states of mind. The key is that he lets the feelings unfold to the music. They work in tandem to suggest the complex, contradictory thoughts that always exist in our heads.
Some of the credit is due to Marius de Vries’ (Bjork, Madonna, Rufus Wainwright) creative production. He adds everything from traffic noises and bird calls to classical piano, jazz horn and folk guitar arrangements to set the atmosphere. And he still manages to have Thompson’s pleasant, conversational vocals always stand in the forefront. One can hear every word, every breath, and every sigh. De Vries has Thompson harmonize with the instruments so that they become expressively one voice without losing their distinctive tones.
Thompson’s sense of humor makes the album fun. Consider the romantic ditty, “What’s This?!!”, which begins nervously, “What’s this, what’s this, am I happy or something / Oh shit, oh shit, am I happy or something?” Thompson knows he’s into something good and that scares him and prevents this from being a sappy love song. He knows that he should trust his instincts but he can’t help but be wary of them. Almost every song contains a dose of comedy to reveal the absurdity of life.
He also has a keen distrust of authority. “Stop doing what you’re told / and don’t believe a thing you see” he sings on one song. He knows that happiness can be brought to you by a pill from Pfizer and that it’s difficult to discern one’s real thoughts from the ones people tell you to think. That explains why Thompson’s songs continually offer more than one perspective from which to view what is happening. The listener needs to think for oneself.
The album is modestly called A Piece of What You Need because Thompson doesn’t presume to offer more than just a bit of entertainment. This is not a piece of his heart. He’s honest, but refrains from presumptuously giving life lessons. He just makes you laugh and think and feel, and he does so with a beat. That’s a lot.