Ready or not, Richard Thompson’s ‘Electric’ is upon us. Along with Taras Prodaniuk and Michael Jerome, the core of his touring band for the last 10 years, Thompson has put together a record of remarkable depth and powerful folksome flavour.
His guitar playing, so inimitable and unpredictable, has never been easy to define. Now it veers between wild fantasy and weary fable, stirring up all passions of untamed youth alongside the hardened discipline that only comes with long maturity.
Granted, those guitar skills are legendary, but it’s his talent for storytelling that comes to the fore in opener ‘Stony Ground’. Lust and infatuation in old age are met with rejection and violence, brought to life with the trio’s rock-solid rapport.
Even so, it’s not until ‘Sally B’ that they open up the possibilities of the three-piece ensemble, offering up arch-medieval melodic scales that crackle and spark dark rhythmic dances with every refrain. It offers mystery and adoration for the strangely hypnotic figure of Sally, leading the masses with her coy smile and promises of more to come.
It wouldn’t be an RT album without an eloquent rage riff directed at terrible people. ‘Dream Attic’ had a go at despicable bankers in ‘The Money Shuffle’, and so ‘Electric’ has ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People’; catchy as hell and taking expert shots at the spoilt, greedy and undeserving of this world. A Byrdsy jangle sweetens the bitter words Thompson sings with an eyebrow raised, as if the object ought to know exactly who they are: “I know you’ve been bad/from the way you smile.”
There’s no denying the power Thompson still wields in his fingertips. You can’t predict what he’ll play next, to the point that you can’t in all honesty compare him with other guitarists. Not unless it’s on terms of pure innovation. On those terms, it’s easy. You just reel off the names of other masters of the instrument: Roy Harper. Davy Graham. Django Reinhardt. Those few guitarists in the same position, walking the road less travelled by and finding themselves leagues ahead of their contemporaries .
With that in mind, Thompson’s guitar playing on ‘My Enemy’ immediately suggests itself as a spiritual successor to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. It’s a tale of of enemies who need each other more than they need to win, told to the coaxing and looping of guitar lines into Gordian knots, shimmering and gliding over you like mist on a winter lake to its strange and serene arrangement.
‘The Snow Goose’ finds RT paired with Alison Krauss in a tale of tenderness and doubt, playing gentle acoustic guitar to an ominous melody. It warns of confusion in close quarters; of learning to tell the hard way between friends and lovers. Krauss is a most welcome and unexpected addition, softening Thompson’s harsh voice with her silken harmonies and lending his balladry a sort of cruel kindness.
It almost seems Thompson finds a kind of strength in resisting all these villains and heartbreaks. He certainly wouldn’t have much of a back catalogue without the ugliness of war or the unfaithfulness of the women in his past. These songs go straight for the jugular, but heavens forbid Thompson should do so without a sense of humour. His jokes are wry and they’re dark and certainly not for everyone. But that’s sort of the point of Richard Thompson.
Maybe this is the first you’ve heard of this veteran stringsman and his unusual talents. Maybe you’re a long-time admirer wondering if the old dog has learnt any new tricks. Worry ye not. ‘Electric’ has plenty of room for the unconverted maybes. It’s rich with arcane pleasures and secret thrills. It’s a showcase for power trio playing, as Prodaniuk and Jerome supply the clap of thunder to Thompson’s streak of lightning performances.
It’s a box of many, many surprises. We thoroughly recommend sticking your head inside.
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