CD Review: Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior
This is Richard Thompson’s best, angriest, most lyrically rich and stylistically diverse studio album in ages, in fact since Industry, his 1997 collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson. Some of you may wonder why we’re reviewing someone so well-known here, and there’s a reason: he’s actually not that well known. He hasn’t had a label deal in years. He does, however have a rabid cult following, some of who go on the road with him like the Grateful Dead. Those fans insist that Thompson is both the best rock guitarist AND the best rock songwriter ever. They might be right.
He was already a dazzling player at 19 when he joined legendary psychedelic/Britfolk rockers Fairport Convention in the late 60s. He left that band a few years later and then put out several critically acclaimed semi-acoustic albums with his wife Linda Thompson. That collaboration culminated with their legendary 1982 record Shoot Out the Lights, a brutal blow-by-blow chronicle of the dissolution of their marriage that ends with what would become his signature song, The Wall of Death. It’s safe to say that it’s one of the greatest albums ever made. Since then, he’s released innumerable solo albums, both live and studio recordings, and virtually all of them are terrific. This ranks with the best of them.
The album’s centerpiece is a towering, seven-minute epic about violence. Its setting is Ireland, but its cast of dubious characters and their inevitable charge towards tragedy could could just as easily be in Iraq. Toward the end, we get a typically febrile Stratocaster solo from Thompson. He generally plays with a round, open tone without any distortion or effects, similar to Robert Cray. Here, he fires away a fusillade and then the instruments fall away one by one, with an understated, somber grace that perfectly matches the lyrics. Thompson is a master of matching melody to words, and this is a prime example.
There’s also a fiery anti-Iraq war number called Dad’s Gonna Kill Me, told from the point of view of a British soldier with his patrol, “sitting targets in the Wild West Show.” Dad is someone in command: he’s never named. It’s a tense, terrified, loping minor-key number that builds to an eerie, pointillistic guitar solo.
A lot of this album is electrified English jigs and reels, spiced with ominous guitar chromatics: Thompson loves those Middle Eastern tonalities. The sarcastic Mr. Stupid is directed at a greedy ex (ex-wife Linda, perhaps?) living off his royalties and tour earnings: “Clear the streets and book your seats, Mr. Stupid’s back in town.” She may despise him, but he’s quick to remind her that he’s still the one who writes the checks. The theme recurs in the album’s concluding number, Sunset Song, Thompson railing about being “up there on the cross where some say I belong.” He hasn’t been this angry at anyone – other than the Bush regime – in a long time.
Otherwise, there’s the excellent, sarcastic, defiantly fast I’ll Never Give It Up; Bad Monkey, another broadside aimed at an ex; Francesca, a rueful minor-key lament set to a surprisingly effective reggae beat, and the scorching, anti-Tony Blair song Sneaky Boy. And six other good ones, beautifully arranged with antique instrumentation: strings, krummhorn, mandolin, even uillean pipes on the tail end of the aptly metaphorical Too Late to Come Fishing. If you’re in the Thompson cult, you undoubtedly have this by now along with everything else; if he’s new to you, this is a fine way to become acquainted with a criminally underrated, astonishingly powerful rocker.