I’ve got quite a few Richard Thompson albums as it happens. Years ago, two different friends decided that I really had to hear his 1999 album, Mock Tudor and bought me copies for Xmas, back in those dim and distant days when people bought records as presents. And they were both right – it was a record that clicked with me.
From there, I went on and got copies of a number of his other 1990s records, including Mirror Blue, You? Me? Us? And Rumour and Sigh. I’d recommend all of them (probably Mirror Blue most of all), but at some point I think I must have decided that I’d heard as many Richard Thompson albums as I needed to and I’ve never investigated his back catalogue any further. Specifically, I’d never heard any of the records he made with his then wife in the 1970s that made his name as a solo artist after he’d left Fairport Convention.
There are an awful lot of bands where the received wisdom, at least, is that their first few albums represent their best work and thereafter, they merely produce less and less interesting copies of their earlier work (or copies of the copies, like a sort of metaphorical version of that Alvin Lucier record that featured a couple of weeks back). To pick an especially obvious example, who exactly really wanted to hear the fifth Oasis album? (actually, I could quite happily live without ever hearing the second Oasis album again, but that’s a rant for another time).
But the experience of listening to I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight made me wonder if this idea of artists going into a decline and repeating themselves is, at least sometimes, an artefact of the order in which we hear those records. Because, whisper it, it sounded to me an awful lot like a less interesting version of those 1990s Richard Thompson albums I got into back at the beginning of the 2000s. In part it might simply be that many acts have a ‘sound’ and most of us only need to hear so many examples of that sound.
This record sounded ok to me, and the best tracks rather better than that, but it all sounded like a weaker version of the material I’d heard on the later solo records that I happened to hear first. Although if I’m honest, some of my indifference to it stems from the fact that, for reasons I can’t quite put a finger on, I didn’t warm to Linda Thompson’s voice.
Tracks like Has He Got a Friend For Me and We Sing Hallelujah sounded just a little too close to All Around My Hat for comfort. While I quite like a lot of folk rock, for me it just works better when its slow and in a minor key (although that’s an oversimplification – I love this, for example), rather than sounding like the sound track to some kind of barn dance with electric guitars thrown in.
But I don’t want to be too harsh on this record. The title track is just a really good song about wanting to go out on the town that makes me wonder if my problem is not so much with Linda Thompson’s voice as with the fact that I’m not all that taken with some of the other stuff she’s singing.
For me, though, the best couple of tracks both put Richard Thompson centre-stage. The Calvary Cross begins with some interesting guitar noodling which suggests Mr Thompson likes his unusual tunings, before launching into a rather cryptic sounding song that might be about betrayal which put me not a little in mind of The National at their best – though I don’t imagine the members of the National had even been born when it was recorded.
And The End of the Rainbow is one of the better illustrations of an adage which Thompson’s career rather bears out that “the sad songs are just easier to write.” Here it consists of a man telling a new-born baby that he or she has it about as good as it’s going to get and it will be all downhill from hereon in.
“But take a look outside the nursery door
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow.”
Which is about as downbeat as it can get really…So in conclusion, I doubt I’ll go back to it much, but if I ever get around to compiling my own ‘Best of Richard Thompson’ on Spotify, then I found a few tracks to add to it.
Highlights: The Calvary Cross, The End of the Rainbow, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight