Richard and Linda Thompson are among the most revered of musical couples in rock history, at least among fans not confined to music’s bland mainstream. That reverence is largely based on two albums: their first, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and their last, Shoot Out The Lights.
The two met in 1969 when Richard was still in Fairport Convention, which he left to strike out on his own in ’71. She (still Linda Peters) and Sandy Denny sang backing vocals on his first solo album, Henry The Human Fly, released in 1972. Richard and Linda worked on various projects including one of Denny’s albums, and they were married by the time recording started on what came to be Bright Lights in the spring of ’73.
Bright Lights was positively received when released in 1974, and its reputation has only continued to grow since then.
It was originally released by Island in the U.K. The original CD release was on Hannibal, distributed by Rykodisc in the U.S. The disc being reviewed was part of island’s release of remastered discs from Thompson’s catalog in 2004. It includes three additional tracks recorded live in 1975.
I have to confess that, although I liked several of the songs on Bright Lights, particularly “The Great Valerio,” “The Calvary Cross,” and of course the title track, I had not given it the attention it was due as an album until fairly recently. For years I had preferred Shoot Out The Lights, and ascribed the widespread high esteem in which Bright Lights is held to other fans’ first exposure syndrome. But while going through some personal difficulties in 2010 I became smitten with the opening track, “When I Get To The Border,” with its gritty, determined optimism. I listened to it at least once a day for quite a spell, and several times let the whole album play. And as is wont to happen when one does that with a classic album, the depth of its greatness revealed itself to me.
This album, its songs rife with dark imagery, may have done more than any other to establish Richard Thompson’s reputation as a purveyor of doom and gloom. “Withered and Died,” one of Linda’s vocal masterpieces, is a portrait of a young girl shattered by the death of her dreams of love. “Down Where The Drunkards Roll” is a troubling picture of life on the streets among the down and out. “The Calvary Cross” depicts the artist’s relationship to his muse as little short of abject slavery: “My claw’s in you and my light’s in you.” “We’ll Sing Hallelujah,” though its chorus is somewhat uplifting has verses that paint life as something out of Ecclesiastes, all vanity, futility and chasing after the wind. “Has He Got A Friend For Me” finds Linda vocally portraying another desperate young miss. The jaunty tune of “The Little Beggar Girl” is belied by lyrics that starkly outline England’s class differences. “The Great Valerio” contrasts the mass of humanity, sheep-like observers on the ground, with the few who know how to rise above life’s mundanity.
And then there’s “The End Of The Rainbow,” Thompson’s wickedly bitter lullaby that, could the babe in the cradle but understand his words, would drive an infant to suicide. “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow / there’s nothing to grow up for any more.”
The opener, “When I Get To The Border,” seems to spring from spiritual optimism, but it still presents a bleak picture of the world, full of “dirty people” lining up to take whatever the narrator has, a “sawbones … waiting ’till I hit the floor,” and the narrator whose only hope seems to be to run away “to where nobody picks on me.” And the title track may speak of bright lights but it depicts a life of anomie and stress that can only be escaped by drunken revelry on the weekends.
It’s all mitigated by a couple of factors. The music is often upbeat and always sublime. And drawing as it does on both the British folk tradition and the music hall, much of that blackness can be interpreted as tongue-in-cheek.
I love the three bonus tracks, “Bright Lights,” “The Calvary Cross” and the Buck Owens chestnut “Together Again.” Backed by John Kirkpatrick on accordion, Pat Donaldson on drums and Dave Mattacks on drums, Richard and Linda demonstrate impressive vocal synchronization and harmonizing. Kirkpatrick’s performance is masterful as always, ranging from the Celtic-inspired filigrees on “Bright Lights” to the Cajun and Tex-Mex stylings on “Together Again.” And everybody rises from a simmer to a slow boil on “The Calvary Cross.” It’s one of my favorite versions of one of my favorite Thompson songs.
Speaking as a non-audiophile, I find the sonic improvements to this remastered edition subtle but substantial. Everything’s a bit crisper and airier, and the light reverb on the vocals somehow more realistic. Pat Donaldson’s superb, almost anachronistically prominent bass lines are cleaner.
The packaging includes liner notes that offer a brief history of the album and its place in Thompson’s canon, in addition to lyrics, all in a small but readable type. I hate to risk sounding like a nit-picker, but the Island CD label itself is a hideous shade of pink, marred further by the Universal Island logo. It’s a tiny matter, and the only thing I don’t like about this release.
Island, reissue 2004
Here’s a video of the title track from UK television.