Much has been made out of the fact this is Richard Thompson’s first acoustic album of all new material in almost 25 years and that Front Parlour Ballads serves as a return to the transplanted Californian’s English folk-rock routes. Neither assertion is true. At least two of the baker’s dozen batch of tunes here feature Thompson playing an electric guitar, and he has never stopped performing in the British folk-rock style. The false hype doesn’t matter. Front Parlour Ballads is a crackerjack disc.
Crackerjack sounds like the correct adjective because the term seems both appropriately dated and descriptive. Crackerjack is an archaic way of saying excellent. Thompson uses the old-fashioned musical genre of balladering, antiquated references to previous historical eras, and outmoded language conventions to create fresh and new material that both harkens to the past and contemporary times with fluid ease. Consider the song “Row, Boys, Row”. It’s a common truism among the masses of the workers that we are all wage slaves. Thompson takes the metaphor to the extreme. We are all galley slaves upon the capitalist ship of state: “Is it wise to be needy in the land of the free? / Is it wise to be bleeding in a shark-filled sea?” he asks rhetorically. The song’s sea shanty allusions (i.e. the beat of the bo’son’s drum, the pitiless captain) makes the fate of the powerless simultaneously timeless and modern, as in the establishment has always hypocritically held down those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and it continues to do so presently. What good does it do to be free when everything costs so much money — not luxuries, but the basics of food, shelter, healthcare and whatnot.
Thompson creatively takes on the heavy subjects. He’s a master of presenting the self-rationalization of duplicitous behavior, lechery, and sinfulness. The protagonists of his songs wallow in their misery like pigs in shit, and enjoy it as much as the swine do. There’s the serial bridegroom of “Let it Blow”, whose love fades as soon as the bride lifts her veil at the wedding ceremony. He’s more turned on by the divorce proceedings than the honeymoon (“Life’s little traumas and courtroom dramas / Remind me I’m glad I’m alive”). Or the imprisoned terrorist writing for help from “Miss Patsy”, the woman he originally deserted for the cause (“It’s been quite a parade, but my thoughts never strayed / Too far, or too long, or too much). Or the cad from “When We Were Boys at School”, who only wishes to do harm and be cruel (“Swastikas and pentagrams / Flourished from his tender hands”).
Thompson’s characters are a motley bunch at best, but their peers are no better. Bullies pummeled the evil bloke from school because of his poverty and ugliness. The raconteur who asks “Should I Betray?” a man who has cheated on his wife, stole from elderly widows, bribed political officials, and made shady business deals appears to be a blackmailer himself. The list goes on and on. Not a good person to be found on the disc. At least Thompson, or the first person narrator of the tales, has the honesty to admit he’s no better than the rest.
As always, Thompson plays and picks his guitar with style, grace and gusto. The credits list him performing on “several things” but do not break down the information further. The songs “Let It Blow” and “My Soul, My Soul” feature electric guitar riffs, but the rest of the album seems totally acoustic. Debra Dobkin accompanies him on percussion on a handful of songs, but mostly the album features Thompson performing by himself. His vocals range from baritone to bass, and at times the lyrics get lost in the low notes on the slow songs. The cuts “For Whose Sake?” and “Cressida” in particular drag as a result. The up-tempo tracks serve his voice better. He belts out the neighborhood anthem “The Boys of Mutton Street” so infectiously that one wants to join the gang and create mindless mayhem.
Simon Tassano and Thompson co-produced the disc, which was written, played, sung, and recorded in Thompson’s Los Angeles garage. (One critic has wryly asked if houses in Los Angeles even have front parlours?) This gives the record an intimate atmosphere. It’s mostly just a man and his guitar, who tells stories troubadour style about bad people and the poor choices they have made. Thompson does a first-rate job of being the minstrel in our gallery. He’s a crackerjack at it.
Modern day Crackerjacks are a caramel popcorn and peanut confection that include a surprise gift. The surprise here is that Thompson has been able to create such a crackerjack of an album from such sparse and dark materials.