It’s 2009, the CD seems to be making its grand farewell tour, and we’re at the point where just about everyone who made music in the 20th Century has been compiled to death. Even Richard Thompson, a cult figure if there ever was one, started the year with two box sets to his credit, as well as a couple of label-specific, single-disc overviews. But Walking on a Wire: Richard Thompson (1968-2009), the new four-disc set from Shout! Factory, is the first to really do it right.
Walking on a Wire is as straightforward and basic as a box set can be. But far from being a cynical last-ditch effort to wring a few more dollars out of Thompson’s catalogue (the very idea of which is absurd), it’s one high point after another. Virtually all of his major songs are included, with only a tiny handful of semi-rarities, and all in chronological order. In other words, no one who’s collected Thompson’s records over the past 40 years really needs to shell out the bucks for this collection. Instead, it’s the rare box set these days that, by doing absolutely nothing flashy, makes a compelling case for its subject in a way that benefits casual fans as well as the uninitiated. Additionally, if you’re a big fan of a particular period of Thompson’s career, but have been intimidated by the sheer quantity of records the man has released, this is a good way to get a taste of the rest of his sizable oeuvre.
To be fair, the last Thompson box set, 2006’s all-rarities RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, was designed as a treasure trove for rabid fans. So if Walking on a Wire was out to beat anything, it was 1993’s Watching the Dark: The History of Richard Thompson, a hodgepodge of greatest hits, remixes, rare performances, and live tracks. It was a strange set, not because of its contents, but because of its organization: the tracks were grouped by period, but not chronologically. So on the first disc, for example, after the introductory, stand-alone “A Man in Need”, 1987-88 was followed by 1969-70, and then 1981-82. It was a unique approach, yes, but a little hard to get into if you were new to Thompson’s work. For more than half a decade after its release, Watching the Dark was the only Thompson compilation out there. It was eventually followed by single-disc collections of his solo work for Capitol in the ’90s and his early ’70s classics for Island with then-wife Linda. Fantastic as those discs were, they didn’t tell anything near the whole story. Watching the Dark, incomplete and confusing as it was, at least covered the first 25 years of Thompson’s career.
Which brings us to Walking on a Wire. It’s hard to recommend a four-disc box set as a first purchase, and Thompson has made his share of indispensable albums (particularly I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out the Lights, both with Linda), but Walking on a Wire is now the best introduction out there. The press materials tout this box set as sporting “songs from every Richard Thompson album,” and although that’s simply not true — there’s nothing from 2005’s Front Parlour Ballads, for instance, or the 1972 album by the Bunch — it does manage to strike a balance between representing almost the entire official Thompson catalogue, lingering on particularly fertile periods and leaving plenty to explore on the proper albums. It also demonstrates the evolution of Thompson’s many strengths as a songwriter, guitarist, and singer.
Thompson came to prominence in the late ’60s as the lead guitarist for Fairport Convention, the fountainhead of British folk-rock. He made five albums with Fairport, but that period is only briefly represented here, and almost solely to provide some context. “Time Will Show the Wiser” was the first track on Fairport’s first record, one of only a few covers on Walking on a Wire, and a lot more poppy than anything Thompson ever did on his own, but it has a pretty wild little guitar solo. “Meet on the Ledge” is a different animal, though, and the first example here of Thompson writing an outstanding song for someone else to sing and taking a back seat during the performance; we don’t really hear him until the lick just before the first chorus. It’s almost a better showcase for Martin Lamble’s drumming than anything else, but Thompson shines during the last two choruses, even though he’s hardly up front in the mix.
The highlight of the Fairport material is the nine-minute “Sloth”, a haunting and powerful anti-war song that I could listen to repeatedly and never tire of. It’s full of fantastic moments: the “just a roll on your drum” lyric in the first chorus, the predictable martial drum roll just afterwards, and the four-note lick Thompson immediately throws out mimicking the drum roll; the understated guitar solo after the second chorus; Thompson’s almost shy vocal on the second verse, which is also when Dave Swarbrick enters on the violin, adding a creepy new color to the performance; the several minutes of dueling guitar and violin after the third chorus; the sudden, calm resolution into the final, duet-vocal verse; and the back-to-back choruses that close the song in an iconic display of English folk-singing (Swarbrick turning “roll” into a four-syllable word, Thompson hurling the word “on” skyward, and Swarbrick interjecting an unexpected “oh” right in front of the last repetition of the closing couplet, “Just a roll, just a roll / And the war has begun”). Not to mention the rhythm section providing all the push and pull the soloists need. Needless to say, it’s a strong performance, precisely the thing to play if you’re trying to prove Richard Thompson’s absolute mastery of the electric guitar. It’s also one of the rare opportunities we get to hear him stretch out on this set, and Richard Thompson stretching out on an electric guitar is truly unlike anyone else doing so. His style depends on harmonics, string-bends, and rapid-fire, sometimes country-influenced picking. It’s possible that his refusal to rely on the blues as the basis for his guitar work has contributed to his permanent status as a cult artist.
Good as it is, though, the Fairport stuff also doesn’t really sound like anything Thompson would do later. As he told Patrick Humphries (whose liner notes provide a good summary of Thompson’s career path, as well as the reception he’s gotten over the years) of his decision to leave Fairport, “I was writing stuff that just wasn’t right for the band.” So when the weird, swirling “Roll Over Vaughn Williams” erupts from the silence following “Sloth”, it’s obvious that Thompson has moved on. His first solo album, Starring as Henry the Human Fly, was a bit of a mess. It wasn’t until he joined forces with Linda for the monumental I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight that Thompson would make a truly stunning record. Bright Lights is represented here by six of its 10 songs, four of which are sung by Linda.
I mentioned Thompson’s skill at writing songs for others to sing, and a major reason this came about was the structure of his partnerships, particularly with female vocalists. Sandy Denny takes two lead vocals during the Fairport years (on “Genesis Hall” and “Crazy Man Michael”), but it’s Linda Thompson who really shines here. In her prime, she was one of the finest vocalists around, with a warm, clear presence, and she dominates the first half of Walking on a Wire. The Thompsons’ union resulted in some of the most fruitful records of either of their careers, as having a partner like Linda allowed Richard to build on the songwriting skills only occasionally allowed to surface on the Fairport albums. But it’s not just that Richard gave her so many of his best songs (“The Great Valerio”, “Withered and Died”, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”, “For Shame of Doing Wrong”, “Dimming of the Day”, “A Heart Needs a Home”, “Sisters”, “Walking on a Wire”, and others), it’s that she inhabits them with such ease and emotional honesty.
It’s not until Shoot Out the Lights that we hear Richard Thompson, vocalist, hit an extended peak. By that time, the Thompsons’ marriage was in tatters, but their musical partnership was quite possibly at its strongest. Linda is a jewel, as usual, but for the first time Richard outshines her as a vocalist. His singing on earlier tracks was certainly effective, but what he does on “Shoot Out the Lights” and “Wall of Death” represents an almost exponential growth, and he carries that into his solo career. Forced to sing all the songs (for the first time since Starring as Henry the Human Fly) on his post-Linda outing, Hand of Kindness, he sounds absolutely in control, not at all tentative. on tracks like “Tear Stained Letter”. The albums that follow contain similar gems in “I Ain’t Going to Drag My Feet No More”, “Turning of the Tide”, and the gorgeous “Waltzing’s for Dreamers”. His earlier singing, good as it often was, was never this expressive.
Thompson the singer controls the second half of the box, and Thompson the songwriter is on display throughout. (And one of the few covers is of the Who’s “A Legal Matter”, which if you didn’t know the source you might easily mistake for a Thompson original.) The weakness of Walking on a Wire, if it has one, just might be that, by focusing on studio recordings (again, with very few exceptions), Thompson the guitarist is somewhat downplayed. For an instrumentalist of his stature, though, it’s a testament to the economy of his playing that three- and four-minute numbers still demonstrate his brilliance. This is true whether he’s plugged in or not. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, possibly the greatest of all contemporary folk songs, “Beeswing” and “From Galway to Graceland” are fine examples of Thompson’s acoustic artistry — which really blossomed in the ’80s — just as “Sloth” or “Night Comes In” are of his electric work.
The reason I’m hesitant to fault Walking on a Wire for its lack of lengthy guitar workouts is that, by concentrating on the songs, rather than on the solos, this box set has unstoppable momentum. The third disc, in particular, half of which is drawn from Rumor and Sigh and Mirror Blue, is packed with great songs. But even that momentum wouldn’t be a given if Thompson weren’t such a versatile songwriter, unique among his contemporaries in that his work draws equally from ancient folk sources and contemporary rock, with a healthy bit of country thrown into the mix. This combination, along with his propensity for black humor, probably also played a role in relegating him to the pop periphery, just as his idiosyncratic guitar-playing has.
A listen to Walking on a Wire, though, should dispel any notion that Richard Thompson somehow deserves his relative obscurity. These songs, after all, are some of the best anyone’s written in the last 40 years. Hearing one after another is a revelation, and if it took the death rattle of the CD to finally come up with a worthy monument to Thompson’s consistently strong body of work, so be it.