Sustained musical greatness is as hard to find as a Britney Spears chorus in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. For every Blonde on Blonde there’s a Self Portrait. For every Joshua Tree there’s a Rattle and Hum. For every Thriller there’s a … wow, where to begin? The Beatles might have approached the elusive goal, but their undeniably great run lasted only seven years, and the solo catalogues of the Fab Four are a stark reminder of the challenges of uninterrupted excellence.
And then there’s Richard Thompson. Thirty-five years into a stellar career, the English troubadour and guitarist extraordinaire has never released a bad album, and he’s unleashed about a half dozen great ones. He’s the master of a dazzlingly inventive guitar style that’s as singular and bracing as Jimi Hendrix or The Edge, and he’s compiled a body of songs that can stand with anyone in his generation, The Voice of the Sixties included. He’s been known to cover 13th century madrigals and, yes, Britney Spears tunes, and he’s as restlessly eclectic as anyone in contemporary music. But Thompson is at his best when he draws on his roots in traditional English balladry as a launch pad for his endlessly inventive original compositions, mixing elements of jazz, rock and Middle Eastern modalities with traditional folk underpinnings. And he does it all with remarkable consistency and excellence. Thirty albums removed from his debut with Fairport Convention, the creative well shows no sign of running dry, and his latest studio album, 2003’s The Old Kit Bag, is one of his best.
By now it’s probably not worth grousing about the lack of commercial success. Richard Thompson is the kind of cult artist who can reliably sell 100,000 copies of any album he releases. That’s a cold, hard figure that might win critical acclaim but which will certainly get you promptly dropped from major labels, and Thompson has been dropped by his share. Occasionally he emerges from the shadows to briefly enter the consciousness of mainstream media. Shoot Out the Lights, his 1982 album with then-wife Linda, periodically shows up in Best 100 Albums of All Time lists from various music publications. His 1991 album Rumor and Sigh garnered regular airplay on AAA radio stations. His 1983 song “Tear-Stained Letter” was a certified Top 20 country hit—but for Jo-El Sonnier, not for him. One could engage in hand wringing over the injustice of it all, but the fact remains: Thompson consistently sabotages (probably willfully) any prospects for mainstream success through his idiosyncratic musical choices—songs about broken accordions and decomposing composers, entire albums devoted to the esoteric art of the Morris dance, goose-stepping covers of “Surfin’ USA” that sound like The Beach Boys fronted by Heinrich Himmler. These are the choices that negate future Greatest Hits albums. Or even a greatest hit.
I do know this: Richard Thompson writes songs so beautiful they can break your heart, and he burrows into the wounded psyches of the lost and least of society with startling clarity and deep compassion. Whether chronicling the vicissitudes of love and marriage or the dire lives of drunkards, drug runners and motorcycle desperados, Thompson finds shards of nobility in splintered human lives.
Watching Thompson perform at a Celtic music festival in Ohio in August; watching him hold a rowdy audience spellbound with just a guitar and a human voice, I was struck again by the sheer power of his storytelling. He sang “Galway to Graceland,” a song about a mentally unbalanced woman obsessed with Elvis, transforming a target of ridicule into an object of pity and sadness, her aching loneliness almost palpable. He sang “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” and the cast of misfits out looking for a good time at the bar became a litany of lost souls. And he sang “God Loves a Drunk,” a tour de force that somehow manages to be both scathing and gentle, fully honed-in on the connection with scarred humanity that has always been the hallmark of his songwriting. His words can sting, but there’s a tenderness that tempers the barb:
Does God really care for your life in the suburbs?
A dull little life of dull little things?
And bring up the babies to be just like Daddy
And maybe you’ll be there when He hands out the wings
But God loves a drunk, although he’s a fool
He wets in his pants and he falls off his stool
He can’t hear the insults and whispers go by him
As he leans in the doorway and sings Sally Racket
Can’t feel the cold rain beat down on his body
And soak through his clothes to the skin
O God loves a drunk, come raise up your glasses, amen
“Watching the dark,” he calls it in one of his most famous songs, “Shoot Out the Lights.” It’s the nocturnal, furtive intersection of hope and despair, the place where redemption, if it breaks through at all, comes at the price of an easy, comfortable life. It’s unsettling and unnerving and quietly insistent that beauty still resides in the shadows. No contemporary songwriter has watched the darkness better.