Richard Thompson doesn’t owe us a damn thing.
Yet, he still keeps proving, again and again, not only that he hasn’t declined artistically with age, but that he can still make men weep with his guitar skills and songwriters envious with his lyrical pen. Electric has to be album number 20-something for Thompson (maybe 30-something if you include his collaborations with Fairport Convention musicians). I’m not bothering to count because, honestly, it doesn’t matter. When a new Richard Thompson album comes out, it’s the same as a new Bob Dylan album coming out. You sit up, pay attention, and listen like it’s Moses come down from the mountain.
Thompson is a double-threat on multiple levels; he’s a massively talented songwriter and a jaw-dropping guitarist. (For one of the best examples of that latter, queue up “Shoot Out the Lights” of the same-titled LP–something you should already own.) Thompson’s balladeering with an acoustic guitar is equally reflected by his ability to demolish a room with an electric guitar and a live band. Naturally, naming an album Electric should clue you into the aural aptitudes of these eleven tracks. Ah, but Thompson is sly; there’s plenty of damaging solos, venomous lyrics, and so out-and-out rockers, but there are few downtempo electric ballads and a pair of album-ending tracks that abandon the nomenclature of the LP altogether.
There are no weak spots on Electric, only more preferable ones. After the Costello strut of “Straight and Narrow,” the tender one-two of “The Snow Goose” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You” is understandable, but it’s the valley to the Electric’s heights. Quarreling over which tracks are the highlights solely depends on how you care to take your Thompson: snarled realism (“Stuck On a Treadmill”), bitterly humorous (“Good Things Happen to Bad People”) or caustically humanistic (“My Enemy”). I prefer the snarled realism of “Stuck on a Treadmill,” not only for the token Stratocaster guitar solo, but also because it’s displays Thompson’s deft observations of the downtrodden via first person: “others may be living/ me, I just survive…stuck on a treadmill.” It’s not all descent into depression on Electric, and any fan of Thompson knows that his balance between darkness and light is razor sharp. “Salford Sunday” and “Sally B” are plaintive songs that no one else could pull off without sounding cloying, and “Where’s Home?” is vintage, steady Thompson.
Is it possible for artists like Thompson to be beyond criticism? Maybe. I’ll argue that Dylan and the like are beyond criticism are simply being mined for their refusal to go quietly away in their elder years. There’s nothing to say, nothing left to write that would effect or affect a critical discussion of Thompson’s lengthy career. But as a point of comparison, there’s a recently release album from another English guitar hero who made some waves in the 60s and 70s: Eric Clapton. Where Thompson’s album Electric is suited to its title in both tone and vibrancy, Clapton’s new album is titled…wait for it…Old Sock. I abandoned any notion of enjoying Clapton post-Cream, but Old Sock is especially painful to listen to with its faux-reggae, soft rock touches and also horribly aged in a way that can’t be justified. Hell, even Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath can still destroy a stadium with their performances, and most of them are aged beyond recognition and taking pills to stand up straight. Thompson isn’t there; he’s well beyond that. An artist who’s still vibrant, creative, and brutally relevant. Even in 2013 when none of those things matter.