A few years ago, I interviewed Richard Thompson for an article that was never published. Unexpectedly, the session turned into a sort of diatribe on the business the then-52-year-old had been a part of since he was a teenager in the groundbreaking British folk-rock band Fairport Convention. On being a “cult artist,” he said that two-thirds of working musicians are cult artists, because the industry doesn’t support them. He spoke at length of the arrogance of rock musicians, how they lose touch with reality. And I’m pretty sure that the words “back-stabbing bastards” were used.
“Pretty sure,” I say, because all I have now are some notes scribbled down later, after a tape-recorder malfunction. But history bears out Thompson’s disenchantment with the mainstream: Not long before the interview, he’d left longtime home Capitol Records, and since his departure, he’s released two strong, idiosyncratic, and resolutely indie studio albums, 2003’s The Old Kit Bag and the new Front Parlour Ballads.
That Thompson, in a nearly 40-year recording career, has never had a hit record is ultimately a saving grace. Already free of a sense of obligation to his audience beyond being himself, over and over, Thompson seems to have found even more freedom in departing from the style-making and profit-siphoning of the music industry. It never really knew how to market his eclectic arrangements, expressive but low-wankage guitar playing, and shy-lad persona, anyway.
Front Parlour Ballads, he’s been joking at recent shows, was made with “a minimal budget—reflected in the abysmal sound quality but not reflected in the exorbitant cover price.” He’s right about the budget, at least: The album was recorded in his garage studio, with Thompson playing, as the liner notes coyly state, “several things.” There’s only the occasional presence of percussionist Debra Dobkin to indicate something Thompson didn’t feel himself capable of doing.
“A Solitary Life,” the 11th of the disc’s 13 tracks, would seem, by title, to represent this middle-aged muso, diddling with guitars, mandolin, accordion, and sundry muses in the comfort of his own home. In fact, it’s a deceptively breezy look at the road not taken. “Sometimes I long for the solitary life,” he sings, then envisions a workaday alter ego whose career becomes less appealing, verse by verse, from “a serious hobby in the garden shed”—pretty much what Thompson himself has indulged with this album—to a death by “a steady, reliable tumour.” It’s the second-least-surprising tune on Ballads, definitely the most Dylan-influenced, and one of the most extroverted.
“Let It Blow,” the rousing opener, is the most predictable. The tale of a tabloid-grabbing romance, marriage, and divorce doesn’t have much original to offer save Thompson’s delight in his own wordplay. He puts the bride’s family in New Zealand, thus allowing someone to be “speedin’ from distant Dunedin,” but returns the failed groom to England so that, while the bride plots “revenge,” his eye can “stray to the ample bustier of a novelty dancer from Penge.” It’s a fine three-fifths of a limerick, but it wears out its welcome over the repeated listenings an album like this one demands.
Geography is always important to this California-dwelling expatriate—how must he have felt when Del McCoury, adapting his “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” for bluegrass, changed “Box Hill” to “Knoxville”? —and it’s used most effectively on Ballads in “Old Thames Side.” Here Thompson’s protagonist can pinpoint where he fell in love, as his beloved stood “by Custom House Landing/ Like Venus risen out of the water.” A song of naked emotion and breathtaking simplicity, “Old Thames Side” also contains a frequent Thompson motif, of a tongue-tied man overcome with emotion: “I searched for a phrase to capture your ways/That’s a task that will always defeat me.”
Directness and intimacy are part of the new album’s allure, which may be why “Let It Blow” makes for such a misleading leadoff. Throughout the album, Thompson’s voice often seems to be at a conversational or even confiding pitch; the instruments are freer of effects than they are in the concerts at which sound man/road manager/Ballads co-producer and mixer Simon Tassano sits behind the boards. On this collection of “small songs,” Thompson seems freer, too—to take chances, even to fail.
In contrast to the assurance with which he tackles “A Solitary Life,” “Let It Blow,” and “Old Thames Side,” he nearly falters on several attempts at art song. “How Does Your Garden Grow?”—plucked from both Satie and Sondheim—offers a melody that’s hard to follow and lyrics that don’t quite jell; right in the middle is a highly impressionistic guitar solo that’s perilously close to inaccessibility. Here, and on “Precious One,” which demands a vocal range Thompson can barely muster, you get the idea that maybe someone else ought to have been let into the garage. “Cressida,” on the other hand, is a near-perfect oratorio, constructed of single syllables, free of adjectives, embroidered by a gracefully plucked acoustic guitar, and sung in a voice that would astonish anyone who remembered the stammering boy from Fairport or the taciturn presence behind rich-throated ex-wife Linda.
In some ways, Ballads is all about finding that voice, about Thompson stretching himself—not always with complete success, but always with the raw emotion that once was present only in his electric solos. “My Soul, My Soul,” the album’s longest track at just over five-and-a-half minutes, offers all of Thompson’s gifts in fruition, even a bit of electric guitar in an otherwise all-acoustic collection. In a furious search for someone—lover, muse, goddess?—Thompson casts out seemingly random images: “The way she crimps her curls/The way she calls that hog/…The way she bangs the wall/The way she walks the dog.”
Again, words seem to defeat him as strings, accordion, and Dobkin’s tribal rhythms gallop along in some reverse hegira, a quest for a Mecca that might mean rebirth or annihilation. “She gave me my party favours,” he wails. “But nothing was sweet enough.” He caps the final word with a mad “ahhh!” Then his knife-edged electric slices through with the old Thompsonian abandon. Add in a persistent, nearly whispered chant of “My soul, my soul, my soul,” and you’ve got the stuff Thompson fans have been waiting for since his foray into Sufism 30 years ago: holy fire, earthy funk.
“Miss Patsy,” the only track on Ballads that’s really a ballad, likewise offers a questing Thompson, this time in a familiar, almost twee folky setting. In succession, our antihero is held for a ransom never paid, seduced by a religious cult, and subjected to an extreme makeover that lands him in prison. I’m not going to swear that this is a metaphorical representation of Thompson’s own career—dogged by the limitations of Fairport-style folk-rock, a too-literal approach to faith, and the cluelessness of industry weasels—but it sure makes for an intriguing pattern. “Row, Boys, Row” also suggests the demands of the “shark-filled sea” of the music business, or of any corrupt institution. “Seven years of bad luck,” Thompson sings. “Should have read the small print.”
The man who unexpectedly ranted about arrogance and backstabbing and the rest of the godawful biz is fully present here—but not with bitterness or even much regret. After all, he’s a lucky guy: He can go to his home office and turn out a narrow, deep product, with no obligation to brandish his lengthy résumé. Front Parlour Ballads is surprising, challenging, and, above all, peculiar. For Richard Thompson, that’s a fine compliment. CP