Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Richard Thompson

  • Henry the Human Fly [Reprise, 1972] A-
  • Live (More or Less) [Island, 1977] A-
  • Hand of Kindness [Hannibal, 1983] A-
  • Strict Tempo! [Carthage, 1983] B
  • Small Town Romance [Hannibal, 1984] B
  • Across a Crowded Room [Polydor, 1985] B+
  • (Guitar, Vocal) [Carthage, 1985] B
  • Daring Adventures [Polydor, 1986] B
  • Amnesia [Capitol, 1988] A-
  • Rumor and Sigh [Capitol, 1991] B+
  • Watching the Dark: The History of Richard Thompson [Hannibal, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • Mirror Blue [Capitol, 1994] *
  • You? Me? Us? [Capitol, 1996] Neither
  • Mock Tudor [Capitol, 1999] Neither
  • The Old Kit Bag [Cooking Vinyl/SpinArt, 2003] *
  • Front Parlour Ballads [Cooking Vinyl, 2005] *
  • 1000 Years of Popular Music [, 2005] Choice Cuts
  • Sweet Warrior [Shout! Factory, 2007] **
  • Still [Fantasy, 2015] **

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Henry the Human Fly [Reprise, 1972]
From "The Old Changing Way" to "The New St. George," Thompson intensifies the common-folk sympathies of the best English folk-rockers into militant class consciousness. Not that he's into protest--just dramatization (Brecht would approve). His plain, expressive voice and plain, brilliant guitar do their work. Official title of the track I think of as "Live in Fear": "Roll Over Vaughan Williams." Inspirational Verse: "Don't expect the words to fall too sweetly on your ear." A-

Live (More or Less) [Island, 1977]
This is Linda's album too no matter what the cover says--one disc is the duo's 1974 English debut, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, and while the collection of previously unavailable live material emphasizes Richard's modal guitar, you should hear them team up on "Dark End of the Street." Most folk-rock succeeds only in accentuating the irretrievability of the past, but the Thompsons' hard-nosed Sufi fatalism delivers them from nostalgia. When they sing about getting "to the border," they're talking about dying, not smuggling weed from Mexico, and they make the crossing sound like an earthly triumph ("drowned in a barrel of wine" indeed). Because they believe in eternity, the Thompsons don't sentimentalize about time gone--they simply encompass it in an endless present. A-

Hand of Kindness [Hannibal, 1983]
Divested of Linda, RT stands tall as just another first-rate singer-songwriter. Near as I can tell, divides his first solo album since 1972's passing strange Henry the Human Fly between the four songs on side one that bid a poisoned farewell to his tear-stained wife and the four songs on side two that praise her replacement for saving his life before warning her not to toy with his affections and criticizing her dancing. Rocking in that blocky Morris-dance manner, but distinctly contemporary, these could be passing stranger. They're of such uniformly excellent quality, however, that even Warren Zevon, say, will be hard-pressed to top them in 1983. Gosh. A-

Strict Tempo! [Carthage, 1983]
Cut in 1981, these "traditional and modern tunes for all occasions" are strictly instrumental, with Dave Mattacks holding the tempo. They're recommended to folkies, ex-folkies, guitar adepts, and students of European song. The Duke Ellington cover excepted, I just wish they swung as much as the rest of Thompson's catalogue. B

Small Town Romance [Hannibal, 1984]
What can it mean that the five best cuts on this live-and-unaccompanied-in-1982 cult item are the five he's never recorded before. It means that as a singer he has real trouble carrying slow songs that were designed for Linda and/or a band, preferably both, and that his solo versions of the fast ones can't compete with a memory. Granted, his new songs are so winning cultists won't care. What this half-cultist wonders is how much he knew when he wrote the oh-so-true "Love Is Bad for Business." B

Across a Crowded Room [Polydor, 1985]
Moderate fame and/or extreme divorce has rendered Thompson predictable. He writes well-crafted songs about his love life, and while most of them are pretty good, only "Fire in the Engine Room" packs the old metaphorical wallop and only "You Don't Say" sneaks in the old emotional double-take. He does take leave of himself on "Walking in a Wasted Land," the generalization level of which betrays yet another pop pro who should get out more, and whose guitar isn't going to save him forever. B+

(Guitar, Vocal) [Carthage, 1985]
Thompson was once the most scandalously unavailable English artist in America. Now he not only has a cult that sells compilation cassettes to fanzine subscribers, he has a cult that includes a small record company. Which in addition to compiling this not unpleasing two-record set of outtakes and live stuff keeps all his real albums in print. That's a hint. B

Daring Adventures [Polydor, 1986]
I don't think it's the material and I hope it's not Thompson--with nuevo roots hack Mitchell Froom introducing his charge to the band and then saying go, there's no way to be sure. Somebody put those guitar breaks in an emulator right now. B

Amnesia [Capitol, 1988]
Often impressed and rarely interested by his solo years, I sat up for "Don't Tempt Me," which opens side two in a persona-fied outburst of uproarious jealousy: "That's not a dance, that's S-E-X/Ban that couple, certificate X!" Followed by "Yankee Go Home," summing up 43 years of Anglo-American relations in one mixed historical metaphor. Whereupon I could contemplate subtler innovations--lead cut with a hook, political lyric with a point. Plus the usual twisted love songs and shitload of guitar. A-

Rumor and Sigh [Capitol, 1991]
From his vintage bike to his veiled belief that Salman Rushdie had it coming, the innate conservatism of this policeman's son is manifest, and at times his prejudices about artistic substance produce meaningful threnodies of no immediate artistic interest. But even the boring stuff goes somewhere, and nobody throws a meaner party. His tales of sex education and old 78s are so cranked up and cranky you wonder how you ever could have thought fun would be easy, and he gets almost as much mileage out of not understanding women as George Jones. Wonder whether George could get through the changes of "I Misunderstood." Or add a little zing to "You Dream Too Much." B+

Watching the Dark: The History of Richard Thompson [Hannibal, 1993]
"Can't Win"; "Tear Stained Letter"; "Bogie's Bonnie Belle"; "Crash the Party"; "From Galway to Graceland" Choice Cuts

Mirror Blue [Capitol, 1994]
I thought she loved me but she didn't--why does this keep happening? ("Shane and Dixie," "For the Sake of Mary") *

You? Me? Us? [Capitol, 1996] Neither

Mock Tudor [Capitol, 1999] Neither

The Old Kit Bag [Cooking Vinyl/SpinArt, 2003]
and he writes better songs than Clapton too ("Outside of the Inside," "Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne") *

Front Parlour Ballads [Cooking Vinyl, 2005]
Finally, it says here, an acoustic record--which he leads with some rock and roll ("Miss Patsy," "My Soul My Soul"). *

1000 Years of Popular Music [, 2005]
"Oops! I Did It Again" Choice Cuts

Sweet Warrior [Shout! Factory, 2007]
Folk-rockin' Sufi hates GWB even more than he hates that lady gangster (no, not Condi, nothing that realistic) ("Dad's Gonna Kill Me," "Johnny's Far Away"). **

Still [Fantasy, 2015]
Meaning of title: at 66, "still" the horny seeker who loves his guitar more than his girl--by a lot ("Guitar Heroes," "Long John Silver") **

See Also