Richard Thompson amps up the dying-light rage that has always made for his best albums, while smartly avoiding the studio trickery that sometimes muted his gift during the Mitchell Froom years.
The results on Electric, produced by Buddy Miller and due February 5, 2013 via New West Records, make good on the promise of 2010’s Dream Attic — which found Thompson recording stripped-down new originals in a live setting. The guitarist appears here, in a series of utterly concise Nashville sessions, with only Taras Prodaniuk (Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams) on bass and Michael Jerome (John Cale, Better Than Ezra) on drums.
Then, perhaps as expected with a title like Electric, he simply plugs in and speaks his mind — about love (or more particularly, love lost), politics, the work week’s grind.
“Stoney Ground” opens the project with a lusty, uneven thunk, and then an angry red riff. Thompson’s lyric, spit out in a clipped burr, only adds to the general atmosphere of edgy menace. He then unleashes a gnarled solo, as coiled as it is furious. “Sally B,” which finds Thompson’s vocal running in gritty parallel with his guitar line, sounds like a bar-band version of an old Irish revenge song. “Good Things Happen to Bad People” presents as a straight-ahead roots rocker, until Thompson lets loose with a fiery, otherworldly solo.
He sounds, in these moments, like a man newly possessed — and that lyrical brio is consistently matched by the storming fury of his own instrumental prowess.
Not that fans of his late-1960s work with Fairport Convention — or his work with Linda Thompson — won’t find quieter moments to enjoy. “Salford,” for instance, represents the other side of Electric, a gentle lament that reveals as many scars as it does true feelings. Here, Thompson plays in a gentle twilight, as welcoming as the album’s earlier tracks were confrontational — but no less candid. “My Enemy” mines a similar moment of damaged vulnerability. “Where’s Home,” meanwhile, plays like a lonesome, whispered entreaty. “The Snow Goose” is quieter still.
Of course, his doubled vocals with Alison Krauss and Siobhan Maher Kennedy inevitably bring us back to Thompson’s celebrated collaborations alongside his ex-wife. Throughout, though, Thompson remains stubbornly outside of any convention — Fairport, or otherwise.
“Stuck on the Treadmill,” with its stuttering groove, illustrates how Thompson’s nervy muse continues to reveal these new avenues of narrative expression. It’s like a rock song applied atop a free-jazz cadence. “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” sounds at first like a ruminative memory, with the door closing behind an ex-lover, but eventually is revealed to be a hard-eyed kiss off. “Straight and Narrow” finds Thompson dirtying up a whirling, organ-driven mod-rock template, first with a grinding vocal and then a series of clutch-popping outbursts on guitar.
The closing “Saving the Good Stuff For You” doesn’t so much consolidate these many disparate moods, as to bring the album back around to a sound and feel that will be very familiar to Thompson’s oldest fans. Combining front-porch folk with a chest-opening theme of love’s third-act redemption, he ends Electric on a decidedly unplugged — and fiercely heartfelt — note.
That, ultimately, is the theme running through the deeply honest, deeply felt, deeply involving Electric. Thompson may be playing louder, but he hasn’t stopped speaking with a still sense of emotional urgency.