Richard Thompson was a mere 18 years old when he made his debut with Fairport Convention in 1967. Unbelievably, it seems, that was 51 years ago. Thompson hasn’t lost a bit of his vitality. His songwriting and guitar playing just keep getting better. This return to New West, 13 Rivers, is every bit as good as his classic albums from the early ‘90s like Rumor and a Sigh or Mirror Blue. Go ahead, there’s several others you could mention as well. This is as strong as any of them.
Thompson has grown very comfortable with his touring trio, Taras Prodaniak on bass and Michael Jerome on drums. After all, they are arguably, the best rhythm section in roots rock. For this album he also has Bobby Eichorn as a second guitarist and three harmony vocalists, most notably Sioban Meyer Kennedy. This is Thompson’s first self-produced album in over a decade and was recorded 100% analog in just ten days. Thompson says, “There are 13 songs on the record, and each one is like a river. Some flow faster than others. Some follow a slow and winding current. They all culminate on this one body of work.”
Thompson has long been known as a master of dark songs. In the opener, over a bed of Jerome’s tribal drumming, “The Storm Won’t Come”, he’s lamenting that the storm won’t come to wreak havoc. On “Bones of Gilead” his opening lyrics read like this – “What’s my name? My name is trouble/Trouble of the tender kind/From the ruin, from the rubble/I will rise like London Pride/No checkpoint will stop me.” This format, where each of the players find some room to improvise, allows Thompson to create dazzling guitar magic on every tune. Prodaniak’s heavy bass lines add to the dark timbre, giving Thompson every opportunity to stretch out as Eichorn echoes some of his lines for added effect. Thompson’s singular style is unmatched. No one has his left hand, and nobody sounds like him. Yes, nobody writes like him either.
After all these years, this comes as a rather unusual revelation from him – “I don’t know how the creative process works. I suppose it is some kind of bizarre parallel existence to my own life. I often look at a finished song and wonder what the hell is going on inside me. We sequenced the weird stuff at the front of the record, and the tracks to grind your soul into submission at the back.”
It does seem a bit twisted singing about the hope for a storm to come, about nobody saving you from the rattle within but these songs are so rich, there’s plenty to delve into. In “Her Love Was Meant For Me” his words lead into a mesmerizing, distorted, spiraling guitar workout, as happens on many of the tunes, including the following “Bones of Gilead.” He slows it down for “The Dog in You” wherein the drama builds, to a searing guitar solo. Vocal harmonies mark “Trying,” which continue into “Do All These Tears Belong to You?” beginning the album’s “back half” that Thompson referred to previously. “My Rock, My Rope” is classic Thompson with its lines “in my darkness.” “You Can’t Reach Me” features glorious guitar ripping as Thompson feeds off Eichorn’s chords as happens again on the following “O Cinderella.” “No Matter” features as many as five vocalists harmonizing with Thompson. “Pride” is an exercise in blissful rock and “Shaking the Gates” ends the album as one of those slowly winding river songs.
This is an album for those that love Thompson’s electric work on his Stratocaster. Thompson has long been hailed as the flagbearer of British Folk Rock or Folk Rock. Heck, he’s been living in Los Angeles since the late ‘80s and nothing else labeled “folk rock” sounds like Richard Thompson. Like Hendrix, he’s his own genre, one of the major virtuosos of our time.