The earnest thump-thump-thump of the bass drum on Dad’s Gonna Kill Me – the headline-grabbing anti-war single from Richard Thompson’s new Sweet Warrior album – creates a rhythm that doesn’t exactly match that of Baghdad, the song’s setting and the “‘Dad” of its title. The backing rhythm there, of course, is not so regular as deadly, and the thumping, discordant IEDs are clearly on Thompson’s mind these days. The record crashes with songs of warfare, some of the battlefield variety, but more of the type that has typified the work of the prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist for four decades – roadside bombs of the romantic variety being Thompson’s stock-in-trade since the late 60s.
Sweet Warrior is (critical cliche alert!) a smashing return to form for the brilliant Mr. Thompson, if any be needed. The record is filled with hooks and sweet melodies, arcane rhyme and story-telling, rolling staccato guitar leads and buttery chord changes. It suffers only from the occasional over-swinging by the spry 58-year-old (a reaction to the old charge of non-singing from his early post-Fairport days) and the huge expecations of a small but intensely loyal fan-base that expects immense and drawn-out guitar soloes and snarling lyrical charm at every turn.
Thompsons erect the warrior theme and dances carefully through its twists and turns. With 3,500 odd western soldiers dead over the last four years and the echoes of “Islamofacism” lumping together all those who turn toward Mecca (and Thompson has been one of these) in the pall of world violence, concocting a rock record that blends wit with tragedy, war-time violence with romantic disunion, for an audience of Anglo-Americans (and the artist lives half-time in both lands) is, to say the least, a delicate mission. It succeeds.
But ultimately, Sweet Warrior must also pass the hum test – and for this critic, it lands a strong grade on that particular exam.
For the past few days, I’ve been whistling one of the simpler themes on the album, from a rollicking sea-tale of marital infidelity called Johnny’s Far Away that I just adore. The story is familiar – man goes away to sea, true love fades on the waves – yet Thompson both amuses and informs in the end:
JohnnyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home, he opens up his door
While someoneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sneaking out the back
And Tracey says, you look so poorly
Sores and all, you need to see the quack
She wipes the snot from off the kiddiesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ noses
He charms her with eleven battered roses
And by and by they get down to the job of man and wife
Back to the old comforts of the missionary life
The song is a direct link to the increasingly dark Thompsonian view of romantic love – one that has slowly evolved from near-misogyny (it’s the cheating girl’s fault in Missy How You Let Me Down on Daring Adventures from 1986) to a more ironic view of love’s labors lost. In short, we all ask too damned much of love. Perhaps age has mellowed the anger in Thompson that was famously unleashed during and after his break with his gifted former partner and spouse, Linda Thompson. He suggests he’s at peace with that darkness in Too Late To Come Fishing, another song I’ve been humming a lot in the shower:
When you were a vixen and I was a chump
You looked at me like I crawled from a swamp
Now things have a different complexion
I’m the object of your affection
Much as I don’t doubt your expertise
Please find yourself another hunk to squeeze
It’s too late to come fishing
It’s too late to come fishing
It’s too late, and the fish don’t like your bait
Tin Pan Ellie better find your way home
But it wouldn’t be a Richard Thompson record worth tagging without regret and remorse, and the songwriter appears to look way back in She Sang Angels to Rest, which recalls the superb Burns Supper from You? Me? Us (1996) or the sad and brilliant King of Bohemia from Mirror Blue (1994). I loved this line:
How do you fall when you already fell for the best
(How do you love when your heart isn’t well)
Then, of course, the rockers. Thompson, I think, does suffer from his own success as a guitarist. He’s pioneered his own style that forsakes straight blues and melds the drones of ancient Celtic tunes to the elements of jazz and occasionally, classical progressions. When you hear him play – on his records or on others – you know it’s him. Though he has been called a poor man’s Eric Clapton, Thompson is nothing of the sort; his work has taken him further. Even through his continued exploration (and he has evolved) the sound is familiar. But I’m not sure where he goes from here, and you can almost hear the struggle on the guitar breaks and fills on this record. Isn’t that a lack from the live version of Can’t Win? Didn’t he roll that out on Sibella? Hard to tell.
Not that it doesn’t sound great – it does. I very much enjoyed the finger-picked rolling arpeggios on the angry Poppy-Red and the spidery work on the potent revenge fantasy I’ll Never Give It Up, which seems all the world like a tribute to one Richard Cheney:
I’ll put you in my loser file
I don’t need your reptile smile
I prefer you out of range
Stare at somebody else for a change
When the sky fell in, you cried
And blackness welled inside
And how your little brain
got twisted and fried
With such a rich calalogue behind him and the well-established themes of love and loss imbued in his writing, it’s very much a challenge for Richard Thompson to sound fresh in 2007. That he succeeds on Sweet Warrior is not so much a tribute to his playing and singing, as to his song-writing. On his latest record, Thompson challenges his muse – and finds him older, wiser, more settled, slightly cranky, but full of a will to tell the world about. Good that he did.
Bunch more reviews: