Angst for the Memories
For his latest album Mock Tudor (Capitol), English troubadour, folk-rock pioneer, and reluctant guitar hero Richard Thompson went on an expedition into the dark heart of suburbia. There's ambiguity in the title, as in much of Thompson's work over the past 30 years. It's most obviously a reference to the fake-half-timbered suburban houses prominently displayed on the album cover in an idealized vista with a sleek lawn mower and a boy standing next to a man whose head has been cropped. The title also suggests Thompson's take on the shallow characters who occupy this realm: "Sibella" (who figures "life is just as deadly as it looks"); the discarded lovers who passively dry their tears and move on; the "old dry shell" of the "Uninhabited Man"; and the social parasite who steals his entire being from others but is "much too busy right now" to give anything back.
Thompson's tough, semiautobiographical look at his North London origins fulfills his reputation for bone-dry, sardonic humor: This album isn't exactly an affectionate portrait of his hometown. "It's where I come from, but it's a pretty boring place," he said by phone last week from an Oregon hotel, a handful of dates into a tour that will deposit him and his band at First Avenue Tuesday night. "The actual middle of town is wonderful, and historic, and slightly run-down and dirty, but basically lovable. But the suburbs aren't. It's just dull, dull, dull--especially when you're growing up. There are no redeeming virtues. Between the world wars they built these semi-detached mock Tudors. They're all the same, and it's a very dire sort of landscape."
The occupants of these green acres, vividly etched by Thompson's acerbic pen, include the small-time hood in the rollicking, rockabilly-influenced "Cooksferry Queen," who is transformed by flower power when his hippie girlfriend turns him on to acid. Predatory women like Bathsheba, whose "smiles and veins turn to ice," practice a brand of dysfunctional love. And then there are the losers, junkies, and hustlers who constitute the "Sights and Sounds of London Town," a gorgeous and ironic acoustic ballad.
The unifying but shadowy figure in all these songs is Thompson, as virtually all the characters and scenes are culled from personal experience. "Yeah, it is about me and people I was acquainted with," he admits. "Certainly some of it is pretty straight-down-the-line autobiographical. Some stuff is more about other people, [with] a few fictional twists. It's less fictionalized than the usual stuff."
In fact, Mock Tudor is a genuine concept album that divides its dozen songs into three chronological periods roughly coinciding with Thompson's childhood and adolescence, his early adulthood, and the rest of his 50 years. So which came first, the concept or the songs?
"I had a couple of songs on the theme of London or suburbia tucked away," he says. "It seemed like it might be inspirational to plow away at that furrow and see what happened. It was actually very easy to come up with the songs. Well, not very easy--torturous and painful and difficult. But quick."
Mock Tudor's sound, created with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith, Foo Fighters), brings Thompson's usual pleasure to songs about pain. That means a hint of reggae on "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)," a swipe at vicious class snobbery; a country lope on "Walking the Long Miles Home"; some midtempo rockers that fester with eloquent bile about the sorry state of humanity; and haunting, dark-toned acoustic and electric guitar work. "Hard on Me," a caustic plea for freedom from corrosive criticism, sports one of Thompson's most ferocious electric guitar solos--an almost primeval purging of frustration and venom.
Thompson's distinctive guitar style is a heady mix of such disparate influences as country and Middle Eastern music, crossed with a healthy swath of Celtic phrasing. "I grew up with Celtic music as part of the mix in the household record selection," he explains. "Louis Armstrong's 1926 classic Hot Five recordings, Scottish country-dance music, and Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. I see [Celtic] as a very soulful kind of music. If you're culturally attuned to it--if it's something in your roots--then it's a very deep expression."
This musician's idiosyncratic voice first emerged in the mid-Sixties, when he was a teenage co-founder of the innovative folk-rock band Fairport Convention, which initiated the idea of playing traditional folk music with electrified rock instruments. Thompson left Fairport in the early Seventies and later collaborated with his then wife Linda on a series of albums that culminated in 1982's Shoot Out the Lights, a brilliant album fueled by their deteriorating relationship.
Though Thompson is now well into his third decade of creating compelling music, he has maintained his searing intensity: Like Mock Tudor, nearly all his albums have remained dark since he shot out the lights. "I don't know why that is," he says. "Perhaps it's because I'm a twisted, screwed-up kind of person. All the therapy in the world doesn't seem to have helped."
Therapy aside, Thompson's songs are riddled with bitterness, the grimmer behaviors of people, misanthropy, and perhaps misogyny. How much of this sentiment Thompson personally owns remains an open question--even with a largely autobiographical album. "I honestly don't know," the songwriter muses. "I really sit down to write songs as stories and it's not always true to say that a song is your viewpoint. If you see it through the eyes of a different character, is it you or are you trying to make a point? Are you expressing something ironical or cynical about that character? These are things that you can't pin down."
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