All three albums remain as fresh and essential as the day they were released, for...
Chris Jones 2004-04-08
When Richard Thompson fled the ranks of Fairport Convention in 1971, fans took it as the final part of the disintegration of Britain's leading exponents of folk rock. Received wisdom unjustly marks Fairport's post-Thompson work as sub-standard, (not taking into account gems such as Angel Delight, Babbacombe Lee or even 9) but really, the guitarist was just moving in a very different direction. His first solo album, Henry The Human Fly, demonstrated how rather than merely update the traditional he wanted to fuse new and old into atimeless universality. This was just the prelude to what many still feel to be his apotheosis, encapsulated in these three reissues.
Covering the period 1974-5 Thompson, with partner Linda Peters, embarked on a trilogy of albums that mirrored their own search for a place in a rapidly changing society. The classic Thompson combination of human weakness and transcendence made the songs veer between a black and troubled beauty and heart-warming jollity. Not only that, but in Linda he found the perfect voice to deliver these tales of betrayal and humour. Deeper, stronger and more suited to missives as bleak as 'Withered And Died', her delivery easily side-stepped any of folk's off-putting sentimentality.
Bright Lights...performs the most perfect balancing act between hard-bitten cynicism and honest humanism. From the opening 'When I get To The Border' with its chorus of crumhorns and serpents, to the joyous brass band hedonism of the title track, it fools you into thinking it's as old school as a broadsheet ballad while closer inspection reveals a simmering indictment of the worst of modern life. And although the guitar strangling was being held in check, it could still bite through at the most unexpected of moments ('Calvary Cross'). 'The End Of The Rainbow' with its manifesto of gloom for a newborn child remains one of Richard's bleakest moments while 'The Great Valerio' - a song of gut-wrenching self-pity - is finished off with one of his loveliest acoustic moments; adapting the melancholy of Satie for the late 20th century.
Hokey Pokey, recorded as the couple were beginning to explore Sufism, paints a rosier (and rockier) picture. Thompson seems more intent on blending Chuck Berry with the accordions and mandolins and the comedy element is upped with 'Georgie On A Spree' and 'Smiffy's Glass Eye'. However, as always, just below the surface is sex, death and obsession. 'A Heart Needs a Home' is probably Linda's loveliest performance and 'I'll Regret It All In The Morning' showed how far Thompson was prepared to go in publicly expressing his unhappiness with human frailty. Whether it was autobiographical or not was irrelevant.
By Pour Down Like Silver the black clouds were unstoppable. The Thompsons were struggling with spiritual and marital crisis (the cover depicts them already clothed in Sufi headgear) and you can almost hear Richard's inner desire to be in total control. He takes far more lead vocals and a song such as ''Beat The Retreat'' seems to speak of a weary resignation to love rather than a heartfelt declaration of devotion. The three following years of retreating into communal life didn't solve the problems either. It's the darkest of the three albums yet contains moments of terrible beauty, not least in the achingly lovely 'Dimming Of The Day' which, with three simple chords tears your heart out, only to be healed by the following guitar meditation, 'Dargai'.
By 1982's Shoot Out The Lights the marriage was being openly dissected and both partners were on the way to permanent estrangement. They would go on to reap the critics praises, but never again would this fine balance of English realism and exquisite performance be so well captured. All three albums remain as fresh and essential as the day they were released, for underneath the folk camouflage lie some vital lessons about all of our lives.