Six strings, two hands, metal, wood, electricity.
Some performers flare out, one album, one book, one poem. Others become fixed in orbit, circling above life. Richard Thompson is one of those players.
Thompson, along with say Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, are iconoclasts. They have their own language – their own vocabulary, phrasing, timing, volume and feel. You hear these players and you recognise their voice. While not in the same wild field as Walt Whitman sounding his “barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world”, they turn sound into their selves and send it out again into the world.
Savage mathematics can reduce music, like literature to combinations of 26 letters, to sequences of notes. But calculus is not art. And art is not calculus. Creation can be formula driven – indeed it is a foundation of the hit machine – but it is not the deep grain in the wood.
Even in the lighter corners of Richard Thompson’s songs, shadows are not far away.
Richard Thompson has, by dint of his longevity and output, cut into such a grain. His latest CD is 13 Rivers. The acoustic guitar has been left in its case. This may dismay many Thompson fans (who wouldn’t be?), but for this one, and who would even think this, PLAY IT LOUD! Like Slade! This is not to say Thompson had adopted the heavy metal salute or started banging his head, but the amps are humming.
The glory of Thompson’s writing, is that even there were no electricity, indeed, even if there were no instruments you could imagine him in cloisters, quill in hand, ink at hand, writing by lamplight. In another time Thompson could well have written Gregorian chants.
Even in the lighter corners of his songs, shadows are not far away. This could be the blues, without the flattened thirds and sevenths. This could be William Trevor, but darker. Each song is a story, and within each song, each solo is a story. Thompson constructs a solo; he doesn’t merely repeat the melody. It has a beginning, middle and ending, a life with all its inherent tensions.
The playing has intersecting lines of attack, an ebb and flow of ideas and a building of dynamics. Hear his live versions of Calvary Cross, Can’t Win and Shoot out the Lights, for instance, and you can almost feel the machinery of heart and soul at work. If you were not so overwhelmingly transported, you would marvel at it all.
His acoustic playing is of a sublime level, too, but of course the volume and razorwire are replaced by rivulets of lyrical beauty, none more so than Beeswing, which may just be the perfect song.
But to 13 Rivers. Its release marks Thompson’s 50 years in the recording industry. He was first with Fairport Convention and then with wife Linda through the early and mid-70s and then solo. His output has been consistent both in quantity and quality. The river really has never run dry.
And here, while it slows in parts, it is always deep water. Unkind souls may listen here and adjudge him as somewhat morose, a glass half-full type of mind. Approaching mortality can do that, and while he still has the spark and the vigour, at almost 70, there are more years behind than ahead.
It shows on 13 Rivers. Indeed, the opening track laments, “There’s a smell of death where I lay my head/the storm must come to me/ and the storm won’t come”. Cheery hello to everyone then. This is followed by The Rattle Within where he sings, “Who’s going to save you from the rattle within?’’ The album ends with the song’s character shaking the gates of hell.
Though not a concept album in the manner of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 13 Rivers does have a uniformity of purpose and feel. Thompson explained the title: “There are 13 songs on the record, and each one is like a river. Some flow faster than others.” The inside artwork to the CD is of a painting of a map “showing the individual songs on the album flowing into a central lake”.
You can swim here, dive and bob back up, follow one river and return to another. Each time the current will carry you along.
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