The Jeff Tweedy-produced Still may not surprise, but surprises aren't what Richard Thompson albums are about.
Riding a tiny surge in popularity from 1991's slightly-more-commercially-visible-than-usual Rumor And Sigh, the first major Richard Thompson 'best of' came out in 1993. EntitledWatching the Dark, the three-disc set was my first exposure to Thompson's catalog beyond the very good Rumor And Sigh and the absolutely essential Shoot Out the Lights (the 1982 sendoff to the Richard and Linda Thompson partnership). The anthology is a broad, addictively listenable representation of Thompson's career to that point, and the central sequencing conceit has always stuck with me —songs were sorted in part to represent Thompson emerging from his Fairport Convention days fully formed, a keen-eyed teen with a writing voice and playing style that left little room to grow. Intended as high compliment, it's a slightly flawed argument that begs for at least some minor correction (he certainly wasn't writing songs like "I Feel So Good" in 1972, for instance) but also highlights some uncomfortable truths about Thompson's output, especially in recent years. His latest, the Jeff Tweedy-produced Still, is a fine album that, like many other fine Thompson albums, also affirms the less savory flipside of the born-genius accolades: if an artist already has his sound nailed down at 18 and a downright unreasonable number of perfectly-formed songs recorded by 30 or 40, what surprises can we reasonably expect from his later work?
In terms of songwriting (rather than recording), Still, like 2013's Electric, 2010's Dream Attic, 2007's Sweet Warrior, 2005's Front Parlour Ballads, and 2003's The Old Kit Bag, is simply an album of new Richard Thompson tunes. They're an idiosyncratic mix of traditional, jazz, and rock 'n' roll with lyrics of heartbreaking insight, cutting irony, and, to varying degrees of detriment, silly and/or under-developed ideas that seem mostly designed for playing second to the consistently superior musicianship. For even the Thompson devout, his post-millennial work has often been less about being surprised by great songs, but about how many bad songs will drag the great songs down (by my count, Sweet Warrior and The Old Kit Bag are the worst afflicted of the above). On Still,"Long John Silver" is quintessential Thompson filler, a title phrase that goes nowhere; "Pony in the Stable" bounces itself into cloying territory. Writers as prolific as Thompson are also bound to repeat themselves, and that's certainly true here to an extent. Musically speaking, "All Buttoned Up" should sound familiar to anyone who's heard "Back Street Slide" (1982), "Patty Don't You Put Me Down" isn't a far cry from "She Twists the Knife Again" (1985)".
Still, it can't be said that Thompson, thus blessed and cursed with an inimitable, slightly immutable style, hasn't tried to mix things up over his solo career with musical partnerships, soundtrack work, and conceptual pieces, like the 1,000 Years of Popular Music performances, where "Shenandoah", Gilbert and Sullivan, ABBA, and Britney Spears receive equal reverence. But in the years since his '86-'96 run with producer Mitchell Froom that progressed from radio-friendly slick to appealingly noisy, Thompson has mostly relied on arrangement and production experiments to keep his new, original material sounding fresh. His enlisting Tweedy for Still follows two of his better moves, the live-recorded Dream Attic and the Buddy Miller-produced Electric.Whatever you make of Wilco's last couple albums, Tweedy has definitely learned how to record instrumentalists who can casually confound fellow musicians with a tasteful lick or a barely-there fill. Thompson's guitar parts and longtime drummer Michael Jerome's flourishes have seldom sounded so clear. The good stuff here sounds tremendous, starting with "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road", a fare-thee-well ode to a free spirit in the "Beeswing" tradition, with a gorgeous solo outro. "No Peace, No End" gets the crunch that earlier Thompson rockers like "Turning of the Tide" could have used in their studio incarnations without sacrificing a bit of clarity.
Thompson's playing is standard-issue jaw-dropping, of course. You can randomly pick any Richard Thompson song — even one in the lower tiers of his work — and there's a good chance you'll discover one of the best guitar solos you've ever heard. The high notes on "Dungeons for Eyes" also suggests that, at 66, he's never stopped improving as a vocalist. Thompson the songwriter and interpreter remains a master at wringing nuance out of character studies and simple stories. In "All Buttoned Up", he begins on a trope: "I got a girl—best girl in the world / But she won't give me a taste of it". But Thompson takes the expected cataloging of pent-up lust by betraying the entitled anger and self-loathing behind it with a few stray lines ("I got desires—raging fires / But I'll do the right thing, won't I?"), a sneering delivery and some demented Voidoids-worthy riffing. Conversely, where you might expect him to undercut the sentiments of "Beatnik Walking", a mini-travelogue about touring Amsterdam with a baby, it's as generous to its narrator as it is to its locale, and one of Thompson's prettiest songs of the last few years. And, for once, the most obvious novelty song—often the toss-offs that threaten to take down entire Thompson albums a star or two—is a genuine delight, a run-down of Thompson's formative years as a guitarist with call-outs and extended homages to his "Guitar Heroes".
The compilers of that anthology were basically right: Thompson has never been much of an evolving artist. If he can be said to have had "periods," they were never quite as distinct as those of others with comparably large, impressive bodies of work (Dylan, Springsteen, Costello, Mitchell, Young). Yet, while his style of music seldom yields outright surprises in form, Thompson may be the only person who has ever been or ever will be capable of writing and performing in it. Still, even with the expected flaws of latter day Thompson releases, continues the winning streak of his last two albums of new music.