Monday, March 26, 2007


25 years ago: March, 1982

Shoot Out The Lights was the final album by the husband-wife duo Richard and Linda Thompson. At the time it was compared to Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (1975), another album expressive of the demise of a marriage. The album was my introduction to both of these artists; my interest in Richard Thompson took off from here -- into his solo albums of the '80s, '90s and his three most recent studio albums of original material, Mock Tudor (1999), The Old Kit Bag (2003), and Front Parlour Ballads (2005), which are the best of his career -- and also back to his time with Fairport Convention, 1968-70. Recently I picked up a remastered re-issue of an earlier R & L Thompson album: Pour Down Like Silver (1975), which is dark, moody and comic in the classic Thompson manner. It may be that his guitar playing was more powerful in the '70s and '80s than it is today -- there's nothing on those last three albums to equal the harrowing guitar on "Sloth" from Full House (1970), his final album with Fairport Convention, or the foreboding guitar on "Night Comes In," from Pour Down, or the bristling, aggressive guitar on the title track here -- which puts me in mind of Neil Young on "Danger Bird" from Zuma (1975).

Thompson is a song writer with a range of moods and topics. I think what attracts me to him most is that, like Ray Davies and Elvis Costello, he can be wonderfully sardonic -- see "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed" (co-written with Linda) and "Wall of Death" -- but also, like them, he can tell the stories of characters not himself, not even temperamentally. "Backstreet Slide" is a cranking, lively number that captures the outlook of the down-and-out denizen of London -- something Thompson returns to again and again ("now slander is a loving tongue / they speak your name to everyone"). And the title track, in its figure of a criminal from the criminal's point of view (a metaphor for the angry husband's mood), presents the kind of use of character that is a staple of Thompson's writing -- and, from the days of "Crazy Man Michael" on Fairport Convention's masterwork Liege and Lief (1969), the point of view songs tend to imbue their subjects with a kind of tragic grandeur. Unless the opposite effect is aimed for, in which case the speaker of the song is given enough rope to hang himself -- in tongue-in-cheek manner.

The songs that earned the Blood on the Tracks comparisons are in the tradition of songs that tell it like it is about the stress of remaining a couple when the reasons for being together are hard to find. "A Man in Need," sung by Richard, gives the man's point of view -- a spritely feeling of being unsatisfied and looking for a way out, but "Walking on the Wire," sung by Linda, could be said to give the woman's point of view (both songs were written by Richard) and is more emotionally wrenching, if only because Linda's singing is more emotional, better able to crystallize the sense of endured pain, and of that agonized waiting for the other shoe to fall. But my favorite track sung by Linda is "Just the Motion," which offers some respite from the battle of words -- melancholy, yes, but in its chorus it looks at what "being together" feels like: "under the ocean at the bottom of the sea / you can't hear the storm, it's as peaceful as can be / it's just the motion." Her "mmm-hmm, it's just the motion" really clinches it.

Finally there's the opening track which I remember my friend Peter, who played this album for me back in '83, singled out for its choice of words: "Don't Renege on our Love" -- he loved the twist of "renege," that language of contracts, deals, negotiations entering the bedroom. It's a good example of Thompson's way with words. If someone you know -- or you yourself -- should be going through a divorce, here's an album you'll want to have around..

Now hunger is hunger
And need is need
Am I just another
Mouth to feed?
When the game is up
Well, don't renege on our love

--Richard Thompson, "Don't Renege on our Love" (1982)

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

This was the one that introduced RT to me, too. My favorite tune of his is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning": an incredible case of writing about people who are not himself. No confessional singer-songwriter here!