The son of Richard and Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, has always been burdened with a rich legacy to uphold but he’s done quite well as a producer, solo artist, and as a contributor to projects of others. Heartbreaker Please is his sixth solo album, the latest installment of his melodic, hook-filled roots and pop style, evoking memories of the Everly Brothers and some of the early rock n’ rollers. He certainly doesn’t bear the trappings of English folk-rock like his parents. He left London at age 18, settled in New York five years later and has remained there for 20 years, establishing himself as a driving force with the city’s musical artists.
Thompson has remained a key force in family projects, having participated with his parents and sister Kami (The Rails) on 2014’s Family. He’s produced albums for his mother Linda (Versatile Heart, Fashionably Late), , three for Dori Freeman including 2019’s Every Single Star, for sisters Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne (Not Dark Yet) as well as for a few other artists. He collaborated with Liz Tormes on her Limelight. Shortly after arriving in New York he played in Rosanne Cash’s band. He’s often collaborated with Martha and Rufus Wainwright, and has contributed to numerous tribute projects So, he’s gotten around.
As the title suggests, Thompson reckons with the breakup of a real-life relationship but navigates it with an even-handed balance that’s part wistful and part deeply honest. Reflecting on his career and lineage, he offers, “I wanted to reinvent myself and it was easier to leave it behind and go somewhere new to announce myself as a musician, rather than explain to all the people who’ve known you since you were a kid. And you can actually reinvent yourself in America, step off the plane, say ‘my name is whatever’.”
At the outset of this project, Thompson’s journey through musical experience brought him once again back home to the songs of the 50’s. “I’m completely enamored with the three-minute pop song. Maybe it’s conditioning if you hear enough of it, but the brevity of those songs, I thought it seemed perfect to me,” says Thompson. “Those songs emerged at the beginning of a certain type of pop music, where the song itself was important and would live on. If it was great, people would cover it. So, I am still drawn to that, trying to be succinct and witty, but also cut to the heart in a matter of two or three minutes. I’ll never write a song as good as Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybelline’ or something by the Everly Brothers, but that’s the touchstone for me.”
He is clever too. Rather than singing from an autobiographical stance, most of these songs have someone else doing the heartbreaking. He took the sad subject matter and set it against a soul beat so that it comes across mostly as uplifting. Recalling the breakup song from the Everly Brothers, “Bye Love,” he similarly serves these up these songs of resignation with a similar attitude. In a way, it was a departure. He confesses (without mentioning his father, Richard) to also naturally writing sad, slow songs. Perhaps these bouncy tunes were a means of gaining new footing, a return to the comfort zone of ‘50s music to reestablish his confidence.
Thompson’s reputation in the New York community enables him to draw from some of the city’s best – drummer Zach Jones (Sting), bassist Jeff Hill (Rufus Wainwright, Chris Robinson Brotherhood), guitarist Al Street (Maxine Brown, Otis Clay) and keyboardist Eric Finland (Joe Louis Walker). On certain tracks, frequent collaborator drummer Ethan Eubanks and keyboardists Erik Deutsch (Leftover Salmon, Dixie Chicks) appear while Richard Thompson appears on the title track. Horns and strings grace select tunes as Teddy sings, plays guitars, and adds a few effects here and there.
As an indicator for the album’s feel, the opening “Why Wait” bounces along in bright pop fashion, punctuated with horns against lyrics that signal anything but – “If you’re going to leave me in the end/Why wait for you to break my heart.” The crooning title track is a yearning plea for the lover’s return while acknowledging that the bond my sever again. Dad Richard takes a brief guitar break. “Brand New” sets Thompson’s poignant vocal against spare backing while “What Now” engages at a perky tempo with the refrain “But it only matters now if you’re with me.”
”No Idea” is another spare one sung with trio backing, this time with Eubanks and Deutsch joining Hill. It has some of his bleaker lyrics (“I’m a house with no foundation/I’m a field that’s turned to dust”) that are somewhat offset by the melodic chorus – “So I run and I hide/And I don’t really try/So hare, to be here/With the pain and the fear.” “Record Player” with its horns and background vocalists is the ideal radio song. As seems to be the pattern, Thompson alternates the tempo and mood, bringing a string arrangement for “Take Me Away” and following with the animated Finland piano-driven rave-up “It’s Not Easy.” Naturally, the closer “Move at Speed” slows to a disconsolate mood behind lyrics such as – “Leave the pieces on the floor/You will never have control/Only leaves you wanting more/You are running from yourself/When you move at speed/There is no release/When you move at speed.”
We can suppose that the album was cathartic for Thompson, but he manages to put a bright spin on the music that will leave many more smiles than frowns.