Sweet Warrior is Richard Thompson’s best set of songs this millennium. I like it best, anyway, of his studio releases since 1999’s Mock Tudor. Starting with that album, all of RT’s recent releases have been “theme,” if not actual “concept” albums, but the quality of the songs has been variable. Mock Tudor explored the life and times of the London suburbs where Thompson grew up, focusing chiefly on the ’60s. In 2003, The Old Kit Bag was an uneven two-part tour through love and obsession past and present. And 2005’s Front Parlour Ballads was a solo, mostly acoustic affair of art songs and ballads on dark themes of betrayal. (Interspersed among those albums were several Internet-only live releases, including Ducknapped and the highly popular 1000 Years of Popular Music and a film soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.)
Now, with Thompson songs it’s a little tricky to predict which ones are going to be long-lasting numbers that you’ll want to hear again and again, in concert and on the stereo. For one thing, his eclectic styles and subject matters hold varying appeal for his fans, and one man’s hit is another man’s dog. And you can never tell when one of those songs of his that seemed a bit of drivel to you last year is going to suddenly seem eerily relevant the next time you hear it.
That said, I’m comfortable predicting that a good percentage of the songs on Sweet Warrior will earn their place in his fans’ hearts and on RT’s setlists for beyond the current year’s tour.
The theme of this album is war in its many guises. As usual, there are a fair number of songs shining a light into various dark corners of the war between the sexes, and neither side comes off all that well in the end. And what’s an RT album without at least one take on the damage done to individuals by the class system? But the most obvious target here is the actual war that’s going on right now, the one that has American and English men and women fighting and dying in the midst of a civil war in Iraq. “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” was released as a free download on Thompson’s website in March, and has since been moved to iTunes and other pay sites; it has garnered a bit of press attention and some critical acclaim, but has been almost universally miscast as an “antiwar” song. What it is, is a stream-of-consciousness view of the terror of being an occupying soldier in Baghdad (the “dad” of the title), beset on all sides by roadside bombs and “Ali Babas” who are a “different species.” It’s a catchy song, as are most on Sweet Warrior, with lots of tasty guitar work and some sweet fiddling from Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek).
The opening track “Needle and Thread” is a typical Thompson tale of woe from a fellow who sees himself as a victim of feminine wiles and treachery. In each verse he details the sins of another woman, backed by a dense arrangement of acoustic guitars, mandolin, electric bass and Michael Jerome’s drumming, before heading into the Brit-invasion-style chorus of “Needle and thread, needle and thread, hand me down my needle and thread / hey, hey, hey,” complete with multi-tracked harmony vocals. Then it’s right into a rousing rocker, “I’ll Never Give It Up,” a signature RT song of bitter recrimination. Pal Danny Thompson plays double bass on this one, and Richard packs some amazing cascades of notes into the middle guitar solo.
The other rocking numbers include the spiky “Mr. Stupid,” from the standpoint of a bitter ex-husband; the ska-inflected “Francesca,” complete with trumpet-and-sax horn section; and the rockabilly rave-up “Bad Monkey.” This one, with a melody line similar to the concert standard “Tear Stained Letter,” is guaranteed to have them up dancing in the aisles.
Slower, more ballad-oriented fare includes “Take Care the Road You Choose”; the elegiac “Poppy Red,” in which a grieving widower obsesses on his loving memories; the tragic-heroine ballad “She Sang Angels to Rest,” with a lovely string quartet accompaniment, perhaps a first; and the closing, regretful “Sunset Song.” The mid-tempo “Sneaky Boy” is yet another take on a familiar Thompson theme of “you want to be in our gang but you don’t quite cut it” sort — this time, though, the lad’s too upper-crust to belong, instead of the other way ’round. This one’s a bit annoying to listen too, with its whiny, sing-song eponymous chorus; deliberately so, I suspect. I start out thinking, “I can’t stand that song,” and next thing I know, I can’t get it out of my head!
Thompson explores a few different sounds here, including the above mentioned ska treatment on Francesca, and the slow r&b groove of “Too Late to Come Fishing.” “Johnny’s Far Away” draws on Celtic sounds mixed with a sea chanty rhythm, for its lurid tale of a traveling musician and his wife who cheat on each other while he’s off entertaining cruiseship passengers. And Thompson leaps with both feet into epic balladry of the Waterboys or U2 sort with the nearly eight-minute bandit tale “Guns are the Tongues” with its arena-rock chorus.
With those few exceptions, most of these songs sound “like” any of several other songs in Thompson’s deep catalog, but only in the way any song he writes after 40 years in the craft is going to sound like an RT song. On this album, as on every one of the last several, his vocal skills seem to have grown stronger. But I also find very little of the kind of forced oversinging I’ve heard of late, especially on Kit Bag. He seems to have rediscovered a sense of subtlety, and isn’t always playing or singing every note with as much force as he can muster.
His musical accompaniment is extraordinarily strong. After 15 years or more together, Richard and Danny play with a synchrony that is as close as any in the industry. And it’s a delight to hear Michael Jerome (who played on the Mock Tudor tour and on the live shows recorded for the 1000 Years disc) in the studio with Thompson; his drumming is so consistently inventive and sympathetic to the song, and so propulsive, that it gives extra life and brightness to every track. And it’s also wonderful to have a fiddler playing with RT again, too. Watkins for the most part holds her own, though I’d like to hear her go more head-to-head with Thompson on some of the guitar breaks in “Guns are the Tongues,” as someone like, say, Eliza Carthy might’ve.
I don’t know if this is a “great” album. That’ll take a while. But at first blush, and second, I like these songs very much. There’s no “Vincent” here, no “Shoot Out the Lights,” but each of these songs works very well in its own right. There’s not a lot of forced cleverness or “Psycho Street” obtuseness, just one rocking verse-chorus-verse after another, with some tender and bitter ballads interspersed. Not many singer-songwriters, or guitar gods for that matter, are still consistently putting out albums with such a high degree of authenticity and integrity, nearly 40 years into their careers. This sweet warrior is still fighting the good fight, and still winning.
(Shout! Factory US, Proper UK, 2007)