Got Guitar? Richard Thompson Shoots Out the Lights Again

Mock Tudor , Richard Thompson (Capitol).

The time: July 19, 1999 (the middle of the heat wave). The place: Tonic, a Norfolk Street beer joint. There, British guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson and his small band performed a low-profile 7 P.M. showcase to promote his just-released album, Mock Tudor . Before the show, he chatted with a journalist and learned the man will review the record for this newspaper. Mr. Thompson reached for his wallet, saying, “How much you want?”

A bribe? Surely he jests! Mock Tudor is a superior album, even though it’s–oh no!–a “concept” album, a song cycle about growing up in London’s suburbs. Holy Thick as a Brick !

The first number is catchy rocker with harmonica (must be a first for Mr. Thompson) called “Cooksferry Queen.” It’s about a 60’s London gangster who was transformed into a love child by LSD. The thug actually paraphrases Jefferson Airplane, singing, “She gave me one pill to get bigger/ Another pill to get small.” Then the lad hallucinates familiar Thompson imagery of “snakes dancing all around my feet/ And dead men coming through the wall.”

Mr. Thompson further explores London’s underbelly in “Sights and Sounds of London Town,” cataloguing his city’s whores, losers and shakedown men as thoroughly as a musical Weegee. The best song, “Walking the Long Miles Home,” is crime-free, however. It’s about a bloke trudging home to North London in the middle of the night long after the Tube and buses have stopped running.

Mr. Thompson divides this concept album into three narrative groupings titled “Metroland,” “Heroes in the Suburbs” and “Street Cries and Stage Whispers.” But frankly, making sense of how the songs fit together is futile. Half could be set in Pittsburgh, or on a farm, or in a hospital. They concern the heart–which, if you’re familiar with Mr. Thompson’s lyrics, you know is always black. Titles like “Two-Faced Love,” “Dry My Tears and Move On” and “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)” alert you not to play this album on Valentine’s Day (shoot yourself instead). But Mr. Thompson’s devoted following (are we a cult?) doesn’t give a fig about his lyrics or his songwriting or his take on romance. It’s his guitar–electric guitar. Ex-Husker Du guitarist Bob Mould calls Mr. Thompson “the master.” In conversation last year, he said, “It’s embarrassing. Some people inspire you to play, but I hear Richard and just want to quit. Forget the whole thing. It’s just pointless.”

Guitar solos seem passé right now, but it’s surely a temporary condition. Ever since Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar in 1967, cycles of progressive rock, disco and sampling have given way to a reemergence of the pure electric howl of a Fender, Gibson or vintage Gretsch. For 30 years, Richard Thompson has been churning out solos on his magnificent Fender Stratocaster. Some last long. Some are only short flourishes. But they all sound unique to our American ears because Mr. Thompson’s main influence is the Celtic blues, not the ones from the Mississippi Delta. The highlights of Mock Tudor are the solos, of course: a strident one in “Crawl Back (Under My Stone),” more delicate cascading in “Walking the Long Miles Home,” then one so intense in “That’s All, Amen, Close the Door” that you may grind your teeth down to the fillings.

Mock Tudor is that good. Yup. But it’s also a failure. Inside that muggy little bunker on Norfolk Street, Mr. Thompson took the stage with drummer Michael Jerome, upright bass player Danny Thompson (no relation), and his son, Teddy Thompson (the

kid just signed as a solo artist with Virgin Records), on guitar and harmony, and ripped up and re-reinterpreted every Mock Tudor song. It was a performance so astonishing, so exciting, that one might very well remember it on one’s deathbed. Mock Tudor is thus revealed to be yet another Richard Thompson record that doesn’t even begin to approximate the power of his live performance. Mr. Thompson is damned (or is it blessed?) to be one of those performers more inspired on stage than in a studio.

That said, Mock Tudor is still the best sounding Thompson record in years. He demoted his longtime producer, Mitchell Froom, to keyboard duty, leaving production to replacement team Tom Roth-rock and Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Beck). Like Mr. Froom, they let Mr. Thompson sneak in a hurdy-gurdy or two in the mix, but they didn’t allow the purity of the bass-drums-guitar sound to get too cluttered with odds and ends and krumhorns. Mock Tudor is maybe the best Thompson record since Shoot Out the Lights , the legendary last record he made with his ex-wife, Linda, in 1982. The only one who doesn’t agree that Shoot Out the Lights is a classic is Mr. Thompson himself.

“It’s a crappy-sounding record,” he remarked after the Tonic show. “The songs are good. But the drums are small. The performances sound a little lame.”

Hey! What the hell does he know? He only made the thing. Besides, no one listens to a Richard Thompson record for the drums. Shoot Out the Lights remains the most “live” sounding album Mr. Thompson recorded. Of course, his wife’s presence contributed greatly to its magnificence. She also made some of her husband’s bleakest songs (“Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?”) sound almost whimsical. But Mr. and Mrs. Thompson split up around the time Shoot Out the Lights was released. Twenty years later, Linda was stricken with a disease that left her physically unable to sing.

The grim qualities of Mr. Thompson’s verse are a separate issue from the capturing of his guitar on wax, but it can’t be overlooked. In Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human , he points out that the British audience in Shakespeare’s time likely chuckled at Willie’s on-stage violence because they were also fans of public executions (hangings, heads lopped off, folks drawn and quartered). Mr. Thompson seems to write for similar spectators. “I stole your wife–hope you don’t mind,” he sings in “Hope You Like the New Me.” “She was looking bored, don’t you think/ Soon have her back in the pink/ Stop by and see us–for tea.” But remember, “Mack the Knife” is a pretty dry little number. Mr. Thompson excels in the black humor perfected by devils and Bertolt Brecht. Mock Tudor is grim, yes. But it sounds great. And Mr. Thompson will always play it even better on stage.