There are some people who say that Linda Thompson is the greatest female rock singer alive. I’m not one of them-partly because I think her music is too tied to the British folk tradition to be called “rock,” and partly because I’m wary of making grandiose pronouncements about the relative worth of musicians. But I will say this: Ms. Thompson possesses the most purely, deeply, transcendentally sad voice I’ve heard, in any genre. And her first album in 17 years, Fashionably Late , which Rounder Records will release on July 30, only strengthens that claim.
“I’m sticking with what I’m good at,” Ms. Thompson acknowledged with a laugh by phone from her home in London. “I’m just a miserable old sod.”
Ms. Thompson’s status as a master of vocal melancholy was established in the 1970′s and early 1980′s, when she recorded six albums that are pinnacles of British folk-rock with her then-husband, singer, songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson. On such songs as “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” a misty-eyed depiction of alcoholism from the couple’s 1974 album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight , and “A Heart Needs a Home,” a lovelorn lament from 1975′s Hokey Pokey , Ms. Thompson’s disarmingly plain alto freighted the lyrics not only with an exquisite sorrow, but with deep compassion-a loving acknowledgment of the weaknesses we all share.
In 1982, the sadness of Ms. Thompson’s personal life eclipsed her art. Only weeks after the birth of their third child, Mr. Thompson told his wife that he was leaving her because he was in love with another woman, folk-club manager Nancy Covey, who later became his second wife. The newly separated couple then embarked on a tension-filled U.S. tour, during which the normally reserved Ms. Thompson trashed dressing rooms, stole a car and went AWOL for several days.
By tour’s end, both the Thompsons’ marital and musical partnership had dissolved for good.
While Mr. Thompson moved on to a critically lauded solo career, Ms. Thompson made one decent record, 1985′s One Clear Moment , and disappeared. Stricken with hysterical dysphonia, a psychological disorder that rendered her physically unable to sing-or, at its worst, even to speak-she was forced to scrap a planned second album. She remarried-to movie mogul Steve Kenis-and decided to concentrate on raising her children. For Ms. Thompson, a life in music wasn’t worth the continuing trauma.
So the situation remained for over a decade. Then in 1999, an old friend, David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu, convinced Ms. Thompson to sing a song on a side-project album, Mirror Man . That experience began a period of change that has now culminated in the release of a new album of her own, something most fans had given up hope of seeing. More heartening still is to hear just how close Fashionably Late comes to matching the beauty and the emotional power of the music Ms. Thompson made more than 20 years ago. It’s as if she’d never been away.
“I didn’t miss the music business much,” Ms. Thompson said. “I liked writing songs, and I’d been doing some singing for the National Theater-show theater, not musicals-but I don’t like to work too hard. What changed was that my youngest kid was about to start college and my mother died. Those two things were a bit of a catalyst.”
The influence of Ms. (and Mr.) Thompson’s son Teddy was also crucial. Now an established performer himself, with a voice strikingly similar to that of his mother’s, he wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on the new album. Oedipal connotations aside, Ms. Thompson’s choice to, in a sense, replace her husband with their son is understandable. As she explained, “When we write together, Teddy writes most of the tunes, and he definitely has a vein in him that’s very like his dad.”
Indeed he does. With only two major exceptions-the Everly Brothers–ish “Evona Darling,” written by the late Lal Waterson, and the string-laced, 1930′s-style pop confection “Paint & Powder Beauty,” co-written with Rufus Wainwright -Fashionably Late inhabits the same splendidly downbeat folk-ballad territory that Mr. and Ms. Thompson made their own in the 70′s.
Telling tales of wasted lives and uneasy deaths, songs such as “Miss Murray,” “Nine Stone Rig” and “On the Banks of the Clyde” sound 100 percent traditional, even though they’re not.
In the Richard-and-Linda era, Ms. Thompson’s songwriting efforts were rare, and so it’s enlightening to discover that, as a lyricist, she shares her former partner’s fondness for the morbid, and for the occasional grotesque detail. Listen, for example, to “Weary Life,” in which a worn-out housewife, dismayed by the damage that marriage has wrought, addresses her similarly ravaged husband: “You want a young girl to carry you off into bed / But you still need me to scratch your wooden leg.”
Considering Ms. Thompson’s background, it’s not a shock that Fashionably Late features an impressive lineup of British folk notables. Besides Teddy and daughter Kamila, the cast includes acoustic-guitar legend Martin Carthy and his violinist daughter Eliza, electric guitarist Jerry Donahue (who replaced Mr. Thompson in his original band, Fairport Convention), bassist Danny Thompson (Pentangle) and drummer Dave Mattacks (another Fairport alum). But the most celebrated-and unexpected-guest is Ms. Thompson’s ex-husband, who contributes typically spiky electric-guitar work and dour vocalizing to “Dear Mary.”
“I didn’t expect it either,” Ms. Thompson revealed, “but he heard the song and liked it. He’d played it live with Teddy, and Teddy said, ‘Daddy does this great guitar bit on it.’ So when it came time to record, I just called him up and asked, ‘Would you do it?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ And you know Richard-five minutes later it’s all done and dusted. Very quick, very easy.”
This is all the information that Ms. Thompson volunteered about Mr. Thompson and the current state of their relationship. But those wishing for more insight should take note of the new album’s final song, “Dear Old Man of Mine”; in particular, its poignant bridge: “I don’t know why I’m crying / Maybe it’s because we can’t go back / And there’s no use denying / This is the way it never was.”
Listening to Fashionably Late , it’s remarkable how little Ms. Thompson’s voice has changed since the Richard-and-Linda days. “It’s very weird, that,” she agreed. “One of the things about stopping when I did is that I got a bit frozen in time. I listen to people my age singing, and sometimes they sound old-which isn’t bad-but when I first heard the playbacks, I was surprised to hear that there wasn’t a terrific difference in my voice.”
What about the dysphonia? It’s dogged her since the mid-70′s, and though its cause remains mysterious, it appears to be related to anxiety. There’s always the possibility that it may return, but Ms. Thompson downplays that: “It’s fine. I wasn’t able to sing to my own satisfaction for a long while, but once I started again, if I had throat problems, I’d just work through them. I’ve been a harsh critic of myself, and I decided not to bother being that. There were some tense moments in the studio, but no more tense than trying to get served at Bloomingdale’s.”
Although Ms. Thompson’s singing now boasts new layers of maturity and wisdom, its essential cut-to-the-bone directness remains intact. Its power to elicit tears is also undiminished, as “On the Banks of the Clyde” demonstrates. The song’s lyrics are sentimental enough in themselves: A young Scottish girl travels to London in pursuit of her dreams, but ends up a mortally ill prostitute who wishes she’d never left home. For the most part, Ms. Thompson delivers the words with a complete lack of adornment; she simply sings the song. But occasionally, as on the line “Oh, how I long for my mother’s arms,” a tremble rises in her voice, a slight shiver that seems to come from deep within the spirit, a quiet expression of bottomless sadness.
With a tour set for the fall, Ms. Thompson’s schedule is becoming considerably busier. “I’m not a stage rat,” she said, “but it is an exciting prospect to go back on the road. I used to be such a tight-ass onstage. The last time I toured was actually the first time I felt freed up, singing-wise. Of course, I was high as a kite most of the time.”
A more sober Linda Thompson will appear on The Late Show with David Letterman on Sept. 12-a date that doesn’t thrill her, for reasons that should be fairly obvious, but which she looks forward to nevertheless. Following that, she’ll tread the boards of a New York stage for the first time in two decades toward the end of October, at a venue yet to be decided. Bring a handkerchief.