Still – Richard Thompson
Rather like seeing the first house martins return or hearing the sound of leather hitting willow there is something profoundly comforting and quintessentially English about laying your hands on Richard Thompson’s latest release. By my reckoning, Still is Thompson’s 16th solo album, discounting live albums and compilations – an enormous catalogue by any standards and that is without counting the five albums he made with the Fairports and the six with (then wife) Linda Thompson.
Inevitably after such a long and illustrious career Thompson has a certain style and in less capable hands his music could become somewhat formulaic. You expect blistering solos from an electric guitarist and Thompson doesn’t disappoint but instead of becoming over-indulgent or gratuitous (think Mark Knopfler) they seem just right. Odd tunings and a range of picking styles keep us on our toes and add variety to the mix.
You don’t listen to Thompson for a feel-good factor. His lyrics are stark and full of gloom and doom. His characters are often striving, never satisfied, sometimes cruel and there is often a dark edge to his observations. But his lyrics are also sincere and full of insight. His writing is at its weakest when he sets out to pen an intentionally jolly song.
For this album he has called on the production talent of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame – Tweedy also plays on some of the tracks – but the change of producer has made little discernible change to the sound of the album. Perhaps it sounds a little more immediate and the production is a little more sparing but the differences are miniscule.
As always we have a mix of styles from the folk-rock, almost Fairporty, feel of She Could Never Resist A Windy Road, to the more bluesy and American folk influenced Patty Don’t You Put Me Down, and all points between. The odd Long John Silver which is his attempt at a jolly sing-a-long and which, in my view, falls flat on its face – clearly a case of woodworm in the artificial leg – sticks out like a sore thumb.
For me the best moments of the album can be found in the second track, Beatnik Walking, and in the final track, Guitar Heroes. In the former Thompson pokes fun at himself and his ageing fan base, grown up hippies and jazz fanatics – a cursory glance of the audience at a Thompson gig gives you a sense of what a care home may be like in fifteen years’ time – and in the latter he pays homage to those artists who shaped his career and taught him to love his chosen instrument, the guitar.
The de-luxe version of the album comes with a five track EP. Unusually, these are new tracks, not remixes or out-takes of tracks on the main album. If nothing else, as with his lengthy concerts, Thompson treats his fans with respect.
I’m not sure what lies behind the choice of album title. I don’t think there is a passing reference to the Joy Division compilation album of the same name. Rather, it seems to me, it is a statement that this consummate artist is still with us and is alive and kicking. This isn’t his best album nor his worst but if you like well-crafted music performed by a musician on top of his game, you could do far worse this year.