Richard Thompson writes songs that speak of life’s darker corners.
One of the most reliable and singular voices in contemporary music, Richard Thompson writes songs that speak of life’s darker corners. His knowledge of those places can be frightening in its authenticity, but Thompson himself is no creep. He’s a reporter, chronicling his characters’ experiences so that we don’t have to traverse those narrow alleyways and sunless passages. His music can at times be harrowing enough that you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s an artist who belongs under the umbrella of heavy rock. Uriah Heep he’s not, but we’ll all be damned if there isn’t something weighty about his words and music, and his latest, 13 Rivers, is as strong as ever.
Witness “Rattle Within,” a song that sounds like it could have been written a few centuries ago as surely as it could have been penned last week. The words explore the ways in which we attempt to turn away from our internal selves only to discover that, one way or another, we’ll find ourselves out. Add to that some blazing lead guitar work that would put virtually any metal twin lead attack in history to shame.
That heft isn’t an isolated incident: While Thompson didn’t emerge from the British blues rock scene, he gets up to some of his blues-iest bluster on the fully cathartic, “Her Love Was Meant for Me.” For a moment, listening intently to the emotional content of the lyrics and deeply emotive playing of the six-string and you might think you’re hearing adolescent passions rather than 50 years of experience distilling human emotions into song.
Thompson has revealed himself as world class wit in the pass and though 13 Rivers isn’t an entirely humorless affair, it’s impossible to escape the sense that there’s an impending darkness and intensity in each measure of this recording. This applies to the dark, almost funk inflections represented via the wounded lover’s plea, “Trying” as well as to the blazing ‘80s style rocker “Pride.” It’s curious that some of these heavier and heavily striking numbers most often summon memories of Thompson’s mighty 1985 effort, Across A Crowded Room.
It’s not all rough seas and turmoil, though. There’s tenderness in “My Rock My Hope” and more than a glimmer of light heard (at least musically) in “No Matter.” No Thompson LP would be complete with a country twist or two and thus “O Cinderella” scratches that itch before returning us to the record’s dominant vision of the bleak and heart-wrenching.
This could be a bit much for anyone not accustomed to Thompson’s vision of a world with lonely houses, motorcycle wrecks and murderers out on the prowl after serving lengthy sentences. For the rest of us, this is familiar material that summons memories of past favorites and reaffirms our musical hero’s greatness.
There’s not a bad song in this lot though the sheer intensity of it and lack of an emotional parachute can prove daunting, especially on repeated listens. Of any Thompson outing, this is probably the one best taken in small doses as we allow ourselves permission to breathe and fully absorb the complex emotional terrain unfolding in the lyrics and the sonic settings.
It’s never entirely too much but we teeter there for a few moments, hoping for a warm grin or benevolently wicked smile. Neither comes, at least not in the way we might hope, but that shouldn’t deter us from diving in and swimming along in these vast, roaring streams.