For years, diehard Richard Thompson fans have countered his outspoken detractors with the argument that he must be seen live in order to truly be appreciated. Much like Phish or LCD Soundsystem, devotees of the landmark English singer-songwriter-guitarist assert that “you had to be there,” claiming that there’s some emotional resonance to his concerts that could never really translate properly onto a session recording. However, with 13 Rivers, Thompson has finally managed to capture the strident energy of his stage performance onto a studio album, offering up a hefty baker’s dozen that highlights the skilled charm behind his illustrious career’s lasting impact.
Richard Thompson is one of the great unsung guitar gods, and here his signature hypnotic hybrid picking technique is on full display. Although 13 Rivers is filled with absorbing lyrical passages and spellbinding melodies, it is in its luxurious licks where it truly comes alive. From the frantic surge of “The Storm Won’t Come” to the thunderous downpour ”The Rattle Within” to the dynamic pilgrimage of “Her Love Was Meant For Me,” Thompson is fixedly adept at commandeering guitar solos as the ultimate emotional release. The 69-year-old’s fingers lustfully glide across the neck of his instrument with the eloquent fervor of a performer who doesn’t show signs of running out of steam anytime soon.
As always, there’s a timelessness to Thompson’s music, an engrossing degree of storytelling suspended in the ether without regard for modern fashion, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t still display a healthy appetite for experimentation. Each of the record’s titular rivers veers down its own path, spanning the tonal spectrum from boisterous, uptempo rally cries (“Pride,” “My Rock, My Rope”) to tender, eerie ballads (“Shaking the Gates.” “Bones of Gilead”). Thompson can often juggle a barrage of atmospheric elements at once, as in the lofty centerpiece ”Do All These Tears Belong to You?” which balances melancholy yearning with raucous energy, displaying his robust vocal prowess in the process.
As the album moves forward and continues to build momentum, 13 Rivers displays an even keener embrace of the strange. Though its brooding, ominous journey, the listener is swept across a number of idiosyncratic asides, leaping between extremes while still orbiting the same sturdy nucleus. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it appears, as the thorny jangle of “The Dog in You” gives way to the funky, transcendental “Trying” or the swaying drinking song “O Cinderella” bleeds into ”No Matter” in a twisted carnival of mandolin plucks. Even seemingly orthodox numbers, like the dusty, bluesy battle hymn “My Rock, My Rope,” feel as though they have been warped and remolded to match the record’s eccentric ideal.
As fiery as it is introspective. 13 Rivers is a naked declaration that finds Richard Thompson exposing his inner demons: “Just when you think your horse is a-runnin’ / Just when you think you’re fixin’ to win / There’s a wonderin’ deep inside you / Who’s gonna save you from the rattle within?”. The cover art depicts Thompson staring down the listener, but it isn’t meant to be interpreted as coming from a place menace. This is his confessional. He has come before us after decades of cherished output with a resounding decree: Richard Thompson is very much still operating at the top of his game.