What do you do if your calling is the same as your parents’ vocation, and they are famously good at it? You could be Sean Lennon, Rufus Wainwright or any number of talented kids who had to contend with the long musical shadows of their mom and dad’s careers. Teddy Thompson has had to contend with this despite the fact he’s released five first-rate albums on major labels during the 21st century. He’s still best known as Richard and Linda Thompson’s kid.
So Teddy decided to take advantage of the situation. He got his musical relatives together for a project appropriately called, Family. He emailed his parents and siblings to write and record songs at their homes, and then meet in the studio and produce them. The 10-song single disc (there is also a two-disc Deluxe Edition with a DVD of the 5-minute documentary film Thompson: The Making of Family) presents the connected group as separate individuals. There are harmonies and such, but the presentation is primarily individualistic: two songs apiece by Teddy, Richard and Linda, one each by brother Jack, nephew Zak Hobbs, sister Kami and her husband James Walbourne.
Teddy starts off the record with the song “Family” and is the only contributor to address the theme of the family album directly (he name checks Sean Lennon as well). Teddy does this wonderfully, with a self-effacing tribute to his relatives’ brilliance. Teddy has a Roy Orbison-type voice that can reach down for emotive phrasing without getting lost in the bass, and smoothly reach a falsetto without the sign of effort. This is more conversational and less showy than it may seem and endows him with a sense of sincerity. You believe him when he croons, “But you have to know how to choose / happiness over the blues” when starting a family. The story of his parents’ divorce was sung by the both of them over several deeply confessional records. Teddy understands families can go toxic.
His dad basically says that on his ode to stubbornness, “One Life at a Time”. He belts out variations on the theme of independence and the costs of compromise in life and love. Richard’s wry wit has always had a nasty side that betrays his good impulses. He refuses the shackles of love, but he knows that sometimes we all need other people. Is he commenting on he and Linda or family attachments in general, or just making up a song without a particular reference? The same thing could be said about his other song, “That’s Enough”. He laments the tough times and those who sugarcoat it, but there are no particular connections to today’s world. “Screwed again”, as the singers note in the chorus. Same as it ever was.
Linda, on the other hand, gets personal. She sings about her “Bonny Boys” with a sentimental quiver in her voice on one song and offers a tender hymn-like rendition “Then We Can Sleep”. She sings with a warm intimacy. While there is much to admire in her purity, the results are a bit slow as is sister Kami and her husband’s “I Long for Lonely”. There may be merit in the performance, but Kami’s up tempo “Careful” offers much more fun as she infectiously warns others about the perils of falling in love. Zak’s folky “Root so Bitter” and Jack’s instrumental “At the Feet of the Emperor” have value, but if they weren’t part of the Thompson family these songs probably would not gather much interest.
But a song-by-song analysis kind of misses the point. This is literally a family album. The group portrait reveals the qualities shared and the distinctive features of each member. As Teddy sings to a rockabilly beat, some people always have to be “Right”. Maybe he was wrong to get everyone together on this project when he’s so damned good by himself.