A friend of mine is seeing Richard Thompson perform live for the first time today. Exciting. And that’s reason enough to post about a song from Thompson’s most recent LP, Electric (2013).
Thompson has been someone whose career I’ve followed ever since the album at the end of his marriage to and collaboration with Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (1982). After that, but for maybe an album here and there, I’ve pretty much stayed up to date with whatever the guy is laying down. And that’s because the satisfactions of a Richard Thompson LP never really change: good, sometimes great, songwriting, a mix of the melancholic, the ironic and, sometimes, the satiric that I find fits most of my moods, his very clear and direct vocals, and, really, there’s no one I’d rather hear play guitar.
Thompson’s guitar-playing combines the qualities that matter most to me: taste, timing, and feeling. OK, sometimes his breaks can be a bit pro forma, but if so, they’re still elegant enough to make the break an addition to the song. And sometimes his breaks and fills add so much feeling to his usually somewhat wry lyrics that it’s hard to imagine the song without his guitar. And he can write songs that are as clean as an oldtime folk tune, where you feel the singer is truly some kind of Everyman getting down what it felt like to be alive.
Today’s song has that quality. It’s lyrical and sorrowful, but also comical. Thompson is a great writer of “persona songs”—songs that are sung from a point of view, a particular person or type of person is letting us in on their state of mind. He’s also good at story songs, that he narrates, or songs that tell stories indirectly, as here.
In five verses we get the whole story of this marriage (or union), told by the husband as his wife/ex-wife/former partner is leaving with the kids. I suppose it’s supposed to be the final scene (with “her bags all packed to go”), but I also imagine a divorce with custodial visitations. She’s got the kids and so, every time she comes to take them back, this poor sap has to relive a little of what they once had and where it all went wrong. We feel for him, regardless of whatever his failings were.
More than that, we get his view of his ex. She still dominates his feelings; what’s more she’s clearly the one who has always called the shots—to be with him, to have kids with him, to not be with him any more. This long-suffering dude just has to take it. “She’ll find some other pilgrim who’s braver.” (One of the delights, of course, is the rhymes Thompson finds for “favour”—my favorite is “And I didn’t exactly enslave her”). The ticking off of “small things in her favour” is the point of the song, a tally of things that make this guy still “hers” in a way. Because what the “favour” means is what makes him partial to her, over other women he’s known. We might imagine this guy gets his heart stabbed, his teeth kicked in, his guts dragged through the mud fairly regularly. This chick, at least, treats him civil.
And the two verses that begin in a bit more operatic register (“She said she felt bad / For the home that we had / And the effort I’d wasted to save her” and “Now there’s trouble and strife / But we once had a life / For a while our vows didn’t waver”) get down some of the feeling of what was. Both know it was really something, that it really mattered, and we can imagine there was some stepping out on both sides, but even if we lay it all on him, the “effort wasted to save her” indicates, I think, that there was something he was trying to save her from. She knows he put in some time on this one.
The little touches that make this pure Thompson are things like “She kissed me once more / As she gently slammed the door”—playing to the cinematic final scene and winking at it too—and “She told me as much / As she slowly let out the clutch” which makes me chuckle every time. Parting shots as the car pulls away. Oh yeah.
“I relied on her smile / And her love, for a while / That’s another small thing in her favour.” In the end, how many can he really say that about? These small things become the minor mercies that keep him from hating her and wanting to tear her apart. It’s stoic, perhaps, in the end, the way this guy keeps it together and Thompson—I’m not sure how he does it, other than the pacing of this song—manages to imply a lot of grief and maybe even rage in the speaker. He needs those “small things” and she knows how to give them so that, in the end, he’s still grateful rather than angry or defeated. And that’s no small thing.
I’ve seen Thompson three times—twice solo, once with a band. He’s a very entertaining fellow, a good showman, a raconteur, and his fans treasure their time with him. Today's concert’s playlist will come from audience requests. I think I might’ve requested this one. And when he solos in a song / He never goes on too long / That's another great thing in his favour.