A new release from Richard Thompson is always an occasion, although this one is perhaps a bit less so than most. For an “aging folk-rocker,” Mr. Thompson is in the midst of an extraordinarily productive period. Freed from the constraints of major label promotion and production schedules and now with an established Web presence and strategy that includes exclusive releases on his Web site as well as on iTunes, Thompson is releasing material at a pace long hoped for by his small army of rabidly loyal fans.
Already this year, RT releases have included a live CD and DVD of his 2001 performance on Austin City Limits, another DVD of the RT Band Live in Providence recorded in 2003, and a live CD titled The Chrono Show with a selection of material from his entire career (available only on the Web). Still to come is a soundtrack to the documentary film Grizzly Man to be released this fall, and more, either later this year or early in 2006. You can find details on his robust website.
Front Parlour Ballads is being billed as his first “solo acoustic” album since 1981’s Strict Tempo!, which is not quite right in several ways. First, neither is quite “solo,” since both draw on others for a bit of percussion; nor is either entirely acoustic, since both include some electric guitar.
But nitpicking aside, Front Parlour Ballads is worth celebrating. Comprising 13 tracks previously heard only in recent live performances, it’s a gloriously understated demonstration of Thompson’s prowess. Approaching 40 years as a performer, he hasn’t become a nostalgia act; to the contary, he continues to grow, and by now has few rivals in any facet of the craft: songwriting, arranging, recording, singing, and of course playing.
There’s not much here for fans of Thompson’s electric guitar wizardry, but plenty for those who appreciate everything else he does. Thompson plays acoustic and electric guitars, of course, plus lots of mandolin, some electric bass and even a bit of accordion. Debra Dobkin, who’s been providing percussion on some of his 1000 Years of Popular Music gigs, adds percussion. But the main work was done by RT, alone in his Los Angeles-area home studio, and the playing and recording are lovely. Both his technique and the state of recording technology (not to mention his vocals) have come a long way since Strict Tempo!. This is a beautiful recording, intimate and immediate, and feels nearly live, in spite of the overdubbing.
By limiting himself to the ballad form, Thompson has given himself plenty of room to demonstrate his skills. The tracks are about evenly divided between slow and fast tempos, and cover a wide range of themes.
Among the more uptempo fare are “Let It Blow,” a ribald tale of a Donald Trump-like figure and his latest in a long string of nubile brides; “Miss Patsy,” a catchy love song of sorts whose subject could be a girlfriend, a maiden aunt or perhaps an old Bentley; the percussive “My Soul, My Soul,” with its bluesy A-A-A-B verse structure; “The Boys of Mutton Street,” a nursery-rhyme treatment of a youth gang from days when they used “stones and dusters” as opposed to automatic weapons and car bombs; and “A Solitary Life,” the portrait of yet another of Thompson’s signature social misfits, whose life is “dull as the gunmetal sky.”
Things get more interesting and, in the long run, rewarding, with the slow stuff. Among them is the ballad of naive love, “Cressida,” which reflects what Joyce Carol Oates called “a youthful lust of innocence,” whose protagonist confesses, “I rush my lines/I care too deeply.” “Old Thames Side” is elegiac, reminiscent of both “How Will I Ever Be Simple Again” and any number of Bert Jansch ballads with its sudden dips into dark minor chords. “Row Boys, Row,” has an unusual chorus-verse-chorus structure, with a slow sea shanty chorus and an art-song feel to the verse. More arty parlour-type songs include “How Does Your Garden Grow,” with some delicious rapid runs up and down the fretboard; and the tender love songs “For Whose Sake?” and “Precious One.”
The final two tracks present a deep enigma of the sort loved by close readers of Thompson lyrics. “Should I Betray?” and “When We Were Boys At School” could be about the same person, from two different points of view. In the former, the protagonist is threatening an adulterous blackguard with exposure to his spouse. “She doesn’t know the deals you make/the throats you cut, the vows you break…” but also alludes to that wife’s own excess intake of gin. Sordid, sordid … and, what’s the sex of the blackmailer? We don’t know. Both songs are solo guitar ballads, one very nearly segueing into the other, and “Boys at School” seems to be a eulogy for a nerdy geek who used his gray-colored life as camouflage to escape the constant torment of bullies. Is this perhaps the blackmailer from “Should I Betray?” or perhaps his intended victim?
It’s the sort of rich lyrical stew fans and critics have come to expect from Richard Thompson, who’s never been satisfied with navel-gazing platitudes so common among singer-songwriters. Another good example here is “Row Boys, Row,” which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the ship of state, with its chorus of questions like “Is it wise to be needy in the land of the free?/Is it wise to be bleeding in a shark-filled sea?”
Front Parlour Ballads succeeds on its own terms, and it should expand some listeners’ idea of what a ballad can be, much as his 1000 Years live set expands the conception of a pop song. It doesn’t contain anything the equivalent of his best ballads, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “Beeswing,” but neither does it come with any indulgences like “Psycho Street.” Once again, Richard Thompson lives up to his billing as one of the best.
(Cooking Vinyl, 2005)