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Revisit:

Richard Thompson

Rumor and Sigh

1991

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Any discussion of Rumor and Sigh invariably starts with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” generally considered by fans and critics alike to be Richard Thompson’s defining song. Set to a traditional English melody and built around a simple folk structure, it tells the story of James Adie – young career criminal, wildly romantic, surprisingly poetic – and Red Molly – the archetypal idealized female, this time with red hair and clad in black leather. As is so often the way in folk music, their relationship seems fated to end tragically, and of course it does. In quick succession Adie gives her a ring, probably stolen, gets himself mortally shotgunned in the chest during a robbery attempt and from his deathbed hallucinates that he sees “angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/ Swooping down from heaven to carry me home” – Heaven’s admission requirements are rather lenient in this case. He then gives Molly his motorcycle keys – folk motif/symbol alert! – as his final, dying gesture. It’s as close to perfect as a song can get.

But there is much more to Rumor and Sigh than just “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” It is possibly Thompson’s most consistent album since 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights. Throughout the album its characters externalize a sense of fatalism and foreboding as they find both their relationships and lives in general going to absolute shit. The first order of business for the freshly paroled ex-con in “I Feel So Good” is to “break somebody’s heart tonight,” as Thompson sneeringly sings. The situation is reversed in both “Why Must I Plead” and “I Misunderstood; in the latter song the female wears the guise of the flirtatious temptress as she mind fucks the living hell of some schmuck: “I thought she was saying good luck/ She was saying goodbye” he mutters in confusion. Similarly, “Keep Your Distance” imagines the principal actors in some failed love story meeting again by chance. Any thoughts of reconciliation are dashed immediately by the male with a sour remark that stands as one of Thompson’s most incisive: “Don’t grasp my hand and say ‘fate has brought you here today’/ Oh fate is only fooling with us, friend.”

Several of Thompson’s most effectively humorous songs at least temporarily take this edge off and serve as a nice respite from all the doomed and otherwise dysfunctional relationships that litter the record. Rumor and Sigh actually opens with such a song: “Read About Love” takes sexual incompetence as its subject, adding in just a bit of misogyny. The poor fool narrator doesn’t get any sex ed proper; instead, he reads about “love” in smut magazines and a book “written by a doctor with a German name.” When he can’t perform he knows who to blame, and it’s not himself: “So why don’t you moan and sigh?/ And why do you sit there and cry?/ I do everything I’m supposed to do/ If something’s wrong, then it must be you.” A somewhat slight song in Thompson’s catalog, “Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands” pays homage to Scottish accordion player Jimmy Shand as well as vinyl records as the musician alternates between pieces of nostalgia (“This one’s the Beltona brand/ Finest label in the land/ They don’t make them like that anymore“) and some lighthearted – by Rumor and Sigh’s standards at least – barbs about someone’s girth and propensity for inebriation. The perverse or bloody events that transpire in the absurdist drama “Psycho Street” – a man beating off on a train, a wife murdered and dissolved in acid – are so over the top and its actors so stupid that it’s impossible not to find the song darkly humorous.

Though Mitchell Froom tends to be treated like a human punching back for his production work on Thompson’s albums – most infamously on Daring Adventures – the production here is clean and provides just the right amount of polish to Thompson’s mostly dour material. Songs like “You Dream Too Much” and “Mother Knows Best” haven’t held up over time, but the majority of the album has, and it’s probably Thompson’s best effort of the 1990s. It might be heresy to argue that it trumps Shoot Out the Lights, but like that masterpiece, it’s an album built around crumbling relationships that sounds as relevant in this century as it did in the last one. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” rightly casts a large shadow over both Rumor and Sigh and Thompson’s entire career; still, that shouldn’t be at the expense of the other remarkable songs included on this album.

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