William Dart turns again to a regular favourite, British folk-rock veteran Richard Thompson and reviews his new album 13 Rivers.
Richard Thompson’s programme for his 1000 Years of Popular Music, a concert preserved on the Beeswing label (and in this YouTube video), was inspired by a request from Playboy in 1999. A challenge to list his top tunes of the millennium. While the singer suspected that the magazine really wanted his personal hit chart from the last few decades, he took the request almost at its word.
Following "Sumer is icumen in" from the year 1259, favourites rolled forth, from Purcell’s lament for Queen Dido to folksongs, shanties, Gilbert and Sullivan, Britney Spears and this moody tribute to a much-loved Swedish popsicle.
The press release for the new Thompson album, 13 Rivers, makes much of statistics and numbers.
It’s his first self-produced project for ten years and was recorded 100 per cent analog in just ten days. More importantly, perhaps, it’s his first collection of new original material since his disappointing Jeff Tweedy collaboration in 2015.
The 13 rivers of its title are the 13 songs on the album. Some flow faster than others, the singer tells us. Others follow a slow and winding current. But they all culminate in this one body of work.
Now 69, Thompson talks of being older, and one senses surrounding family pressures that may have influenced what he describes as the immediacy of his stories and the passion of his songs. Some stand aside and deal in direct reportage, others are more circuitous and imagistic. If music is a mirror to life, he stresses, then he’s been trying to polish that mirror as brightly as possible.
Even if, with the opening track, "The Storm Won't Come", there’s a dark and ominous glint to its sheen.
With Michael Jerome’s percussion creating the storms of that song’s title, you might have noticed how Thompson’s intrepid vocal line explores a typical, cliff-edge trajectory. Comfort is most certainly not assured.
In fact, if it’s comfort that you’re after, there’s only one track on this album that will really oblige, the ballad "My Rope, My Rock".
Thompson’s craftsmanship is all over its few minutes, dispensing more of those unexpected chord shifts and, with just a tremor of the voice, giving a word like “illusion” a significance beyond those around it. And the subtlety of the man’s guitar stylings is to be marveled at.
What does one expect after journeying through a Richard Thompson album?
These new 13 rivers are all worthy of sailing, in one unforgettable cruise. After the catharsis that could be involved, there is absolution at the end, with a particularly radiant song in which Thompson takes it upon himself at shake the very gates of Heaven.
Listen to these songs and others from 13 Rivers as well as a few from Thompson's early career by clicking the 'Listen' button above.
'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
'Sumer is Icumen in' (Trad) – Richard Thompson
1000 Years of Popular Music (Live)
'Money' (Ulvaeus, Andersson) – Richard Thompson
1000 Years of Popular Music (Live)
'Roll Over Vaughn Williams' (Thompson) – Richard Thompson
Henry The Human Fly
'Dimming of the Day' (Thompson) – The Blind Boys of Alabama
Beat the Retreat
'Civilisation' (Thompson) – Richard & Linda Thompson
'Walking on a Wire' (Thompson) – Richard & Linda Thompson
Walking the Long Miles Home – Muswell Hill to LA
'Hope You Like the New Me' (Thompson) – Richard Thompson
'The Storm won’t Come' (Thompson) – Richard Thompson
'My Rock, My Rope' (Thompson) – Richard Thompson
'Do All these Tears Belong to Me?' (Thompson) – Richard Thompson
'Shaking the Gates' (Thompson) – Richard Thompson