Like Neil Young and Van Morrison, Richard Thompson these days comfortably embodies the term ‘elder statesman’. You can guarantee he’ll release a record every couple of years, it’ll be greeted with warm enthusiasm by the critics, bought loyally by his fans, and probably not really register on anyone’s else’s radar.
For Thompson has seen it all and has nothing to prove anymore. Yet while other artists may let their creativity slide in this comfort zone, Thompson seems to get better and better. Front Parlour Ballads is a more or less all acoustic affair, recorded in his garage at his home in California.
Thompson’s career now spans over 35 years, taking in the seminal folkies Fairport Convention, the collaboration with his former wife Linda which produced the classic I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out The Lights, and the string of incendiary solo albums in the late 80s and early ’90s which reignited his career.
Front Parlour Ballads is Thompson’s first acoustic-based collection since 1981’s Strict Tempo, and although it’s a shame that his explosive guitar playing is restrained here, he’s still on top form when it comes to songwriting.
For Thompson is a storyteller, and his lyrics are a joy to read. Opener Let It Blow concerns the tale of a celebrity marriage and its subsequent breakdown, and finishes on the cracking payoff line of “meanwhile his eye did stray to the ample bustier of a novelty dancer from Penge”. Let It Blow is one of the more uptempo tracks, but the general mood is one of reflective ballads, as the title may suggest.
Should I Betray, for example, is a dark, vicious riposte to a man cheating on his wife, dripping with typical Thompson invective (“she doesn’t see your oily smarm, you pour on in the place of charm”), sparsely backed by the expert pluck of Thompson’s acoustic guitar. For Whose Sake is another raw, bittersweet number, the minimal sound giving the song a wonderfully intimate feel.
Lyrically, one of the highlights of Front Parlour Ballads is A Solitary Life, a marvelously misanthropic fantasy about living alone, complete with a “serious hobby in the garden shed”, cycling tours of North Wales and, in a laugh out loud moment, a life where sex is “no more than a how-do-ye-do with a copy of Titbits in the loo”.
Thompson’s voice remains an acquired taste – he struggles to reach the notes on some songs here – but there’s no denying it’s perfectly suited to the songs here, especially the tender folk of Old Thames Side and the rousing lament of Miss Patsy.
Sometimes, the backing gets a bit too sparse such as on How Does Your Garden Grow, but this is quickly forgotten by the jittery My Soul My Soul, which sees Thompson break out the electric guitar for some awe-inspiring slide guitar. On tracks like this, there aren’t many guitarists around who can touch him.
Ultimately, if you’re familiar with Richard Thompson’s work, then you’ve probably already stopped reading this review and rushed to the shops. If you’re not, while this may not be the best place to start investigating the man, it’s still another reliably wonderful chapter in the life of one of the country’s best songwriters.