Linda Thompson could be forgiven for a slight lack of thematic and sonic variety on her 2002 album Fashionably Late and she was, by reviewers and fans alike who were overjoyed at her first new recording in nearly 20 years. And it’s also fair to say that she breathed life into the tunes on her triumphant tour in support of that album, which garnered a rave review from yours truly on her local performance. But her “sophomore” disc on Rounder, Versatile Heart, needs no apologies whatever. It’s a smashing album in every way. The songwriting, playing and singing all show an already iconic singer at the very top of her game. And that’s saying a lot for the woman who sang on the original recordings of some of Richard Thompson’s best songs.
But Versatile Heart is a mature work. And I’m not using “mature” euphemistically. In songwriting, selection, playing, singing, production, sequencing, it’s a work of confident artistry. While it features plenty of the dour folk ballads that Thompson seems so drawn to, it also is the most varied and eclectic of her solo career. It was recorded over a three-year period in New York and Scotland with producer Ed Haber, and features seven Linda Thompson original compositions, four of them co-written with son Teddy Thompson.
Among the standouts are the title track, chock-full of lyrical and musical hooks; the rockabilly/honky-tonker “Do Your Best For Rock and Roll”; “Give Me a Sad Song,” which she co-wrote with Betsy Cook (who also co-wrote an earlier hit, “Telling Me Lies”); her adaptation of the American traditional song “Katy Cruel”; and her own tribute to another English folk legend, “Whisky, Bob Copper and Me.” The album’s a family affair throughout, with plenty of help from Teddy and daughter Kamila, who wrote the whimsically sad “Nice Cars,” which reminds me a bit of early Joni Mitchell in tone. She also has help from several members of the Wainwright clan, including “Beauty,” a duet with vocalist Antony written for Linda by Rufus Wainwright, and a duet with “The Way I Love You,” also co-written with Teddy. A heart-rendingly timely cover is the Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan song, “Day After Tomorrow,” about an American soldier in the Middle East longing to come home — a more sentimental look at the same subject ably addressed by Richard on “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” the single from his 2007 release Sweet Warrior Must be something in the air.
That’s the quick overview. Now a few particulars.
“Versatile Heart” starts with a solemn carol from a silver band, the kind to which Richard and Linda paid homage on “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.’ (Horns courtesy of Steven Bernstein, whose Millennial Territory Orchestra was recently reviewed here.) It then segues into a mostly acoustic folk-rocker with jaunty tune and bitterly recriminating lyrics. If Richard is still recording songs inspired by their breakup (as he avers in reference to his new “Mr. Stupid”), then so is Linda on this and at least a couple of other songs on this album. Addressing her former lover, the singer says, “…you’re lucky you can choose / who you love and who you lose / that’s an art. / Was the screw worth turning / was the bridge worth burning, / you so-and-so. / On your high moral ground / worth less than the pound / and your halo … Stay on the road, you two-faced fool / that way we’ll never come to blows.” Jenni Muldaur, daughter of Geoff and Maria, sings sweet harmonies.
After that nearly danceable track, we get two down-tempo ballads, Linda and Teddy’s “The Way I Love You” and Rufus’s “Beauty.” The former is a beautiful love song in a stark arrangement, just lightly plucked guitar and the incomparable John Kirkpatrick chording on the anglo concertina, and Martha Wainwright with harmonies on the chorus. The latter is a flowery chamber pop song much in Rufus style, with a full a string section and those florid harmony vocals by Antony. It’s a testimony to the attention that young Mr. Wainwright has been paying to the songs of Leonard Cohen, a complex and dark lyric and tune. Bravo!
A backhanded tribute is paid to Richard in the liner notes to the Linda/Teddy song “Blue and Gold,” a touching, trad-sounding ballad about a lass who doesn’t marry for love and regrets it all her life. She admits to getting the idea from something once said by Richard, whom she describes, tongue firmly in cheek, as “a little known, but extremely useful guitarist.” (The notes are full of such gems, by the way. Linda Thompson, for those of you who haven’t seen her in concert, has a wickedly droll sense of humor.)
Another emotional minefield of a song is one Linda wrote on her own, titled “Go Home.” It’s a command to a married man from “the other woman,” with just Linda doing the heart-wrenching vocals accompanied by the superb Larry Campbell on acoustic guitar. (He also plays fiddle on the delightful “Give Me A Sad Song.”) Similarly sterling accompaniment is provided by the Irish guitarist John Doyle, currently best known for recording and touring with fiddler Liz Carrol, on “Blue & Gold” and “Katy Cruel.”
“Whiskey, Bob Copper and Me” features Martin Carthy on guitar, Eliza Carthy on harmony vocals and something called “organetta,” Susan McKeown also on harmony vocals and the Round Midnight barbershop quartet. In it, Thompson name-checks yet two more English folk legends, Shirley Collins and Davy Graham.
Drums on many of the New York tracks were played by the late George Javori, to whom the album is dedicated.
And I’d be remiss if I neglected the album’s bookends, two versions of an instrumental by Teddy titled “Stay Bright,” the first by Linda on solo guitar, the second by a small string ensemble with Teddy himself conducting.
Fans of “Richard and Linda Thompson” of course will be predisposed to like this disc. Needless to say, they will find it very much to their liking. But with Versatile Heart Linda could very well reach beyond that core audience. It’s a very special record, bound to make a lot of “best-of” lists for 2007.