Revered guitarist Richard Thompson is nearing his 50th year in the music business, and it’s hard to think of a musician from his generation who has been as consistently terrific for as long as he has.
Sure, his career has a handful of clunkers, but he’s never embarrassed himself on record. He’s never cut an out-and-out terrible record and he’s never seemed to lose the joy in making music, and his late career has been thrilling to watch unfold.
Thompson has also been on a sort of late career commercial revival. His last studio album, 2013’s superlative Electric, was his highest charting record in his career in both the UK and US. Last year, he self-released Acoustic Classics–acoustic renditions of some of his most beloved songs–and saw that record chart in the UK Top 20. Another album from last year, Family by Thompson, saw Richard and members of his family (ex-wife and 70s collaborator Linda, his son Teddy, daughter Kami, and so forth) collaborate as a unit for the first time ever and was released to rapturous reviews. Thompson continues his winning streak with his sixteenth solo record, the remarkable Still.
On Still, Thompson finds himself paired with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, who produces and contributes guitar to some of the tracks. Thompson has had mixed success with producers that mesh with his style over the years, but Electric had guitarist Buddy Miller behind the boards to fantastic results. The production was uncluttered and gave adequate room for Thompson’s voice and guitar. Basically, it was exactly what you wanted from a Richard Thompson record, and the songs themselves were Thompson’s best set since 2005’s Front Parlour Ballads.
Tweedy follows Miller’s lead, but puts his own mark on the recording; an infamous studio boffin (as the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart will prove), Tweedy knows what he wants out of a recording, and as a Thompson fan knows what an RT record is supposed to sound like. He’s a great foil for Thompson, and his contributions are many and noticeable, but don’t get in the way as Mitchell Froom’s often did on RT’s late 80s and early 90s records.
Still is a worthy followup to Electric on many counts. Thompson is still the world’s best living rock & roll guitarist, and every track has jaw-dropping guitar playing and often has an amazing solo or two. This is best heard on “Josephine,” the album’s token “just Thompson and his guitar” song, where his intricate picking is pushed to the front by design.
The songs on the album often recall earlier Thompson works, but instead of coming off as rehashes, they manage to forge unique paths all their own.
Early highlight “Patty Don’t You Put Me Down” recalls the clanging, rousing bluesy scorchers from his late 80s and early 90s records which now only pop up from time to time on RT’s records. It’s a rewarding cut and a thrill from longtime fans. “Pony in the Stable,” with its melodic medieval gallop (pun not intended), has the feel of something from Thompson’s tenure as teenage guitar whiz for British folk bedrock Fairport Convention.
On “All Buttoned Up,” Thompson manages to successfully, and quite masterfully, utilize lyrics that would have been extremely problematic in the wrong hands. The song’s subject matter–the well worn and often unbearable “complaining about my woman not giving me sex, almost as if i’m owed it” trope–would be rather unlikable if played straight, but that doesn’t seem to be Thompson’s intention. We’re not supposed to empathize with or even like the subject of the song, and the fact that this subject comes off as an awful horndog is the entire point of the thing; Another one of Thompson’s classic flawed narrators. Even so, Thompson gives the narrator a bit of likability (key line: “but I’ll do the right thing, won’t I?”). The song’s terrific melody even notches the song up to being on the record’s best tunes.
There are a few curious choices on the record. First track “She Could Never Resist a Winding Road” is a downtempo ballad, which often isn’t the most successful choice for Thompson opener, but it works in its own way. The song builds from the bare Thompson guitar/vocal formula before his band comes in at the thirty second mark and the song slowly picks up before ending with a rousing solo.
The nearly eight minute album closer “Guitar Heroes” is a tribute to the guitarists who influenced Thompson’s own style. The verses pretty much serve to introduce solos that are based on each of those guitarists–Django Reinhart, Chuck Berry, Hark Marvin of the Shadows, and so on. It’s a great showcase for Thompson’s versatility and unmatched skill as a guitarist. I personally believe that there are just two guitarists who rank ahead of Thompson in the “greatest of all time” sweepstakes–Reinhart and John Fahey–so the fact that he has a spot-on Reinhart impression was a real treat for me.
Overall, Still doesn’t have the highs that Electric had, but it’s just as good and is a terrific addition to Thompson’s discography. In Tweedy, he’s found another producer that brings out the best in his guitar-work, and hopefully they work together again.