To Burn What Fire May: The dark notions of Richard Thompson

13 Rivers

A short storyteller of unerring precision and economy, Richard Thompson can weave an entire tale within the span of a song title. Consider a composition from 2015’s Still, about a woman who’s prone to wandering and good at leaving; its title, “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” pretty much says it all. See also: “She Twists the Knife Again,” an exacting kōan of romantic betrayal. Thompson’s new album, 13 Rivers includes a gem called “Her Love Was Meant for Me”—a short, declarative sentence that a man would have no reason to utter if he were in a happy relationship with a woman who was true. Though the title lays out the song’s premise, it goes on for five minutes, Thompson worrying that prickly phrase as though rubbing a talisman, his electric guitar fuming in agony and indignation.

There’s a lot of electrified fuming on 13 Rivers, a devilishly pitch-black and thrilling album in a catalog that’s long on bleakness and fatalism, always offered with enough fight and finesse to keep dourness at bay. That’s another way of saying that it’s peak-level Richard Thompson. The self-produced set was recorded in just 10 days, its first-take clarity showcasing the righteous chemistry of Thompson’s band: Drummer Michael Jerome delivers both in-the-pocket swing and cling-and-clatter pandemonium, bassist Taras Prodaniuk is driving and supple, and second guitarist Bobby Eichorn, in an unglamorous role, enriches Thompson’s dexterous solos with color and depth. This may be the cleanest, most visceral album Thompson’s ever recorded, the best at capturing the agitated burr in his voice, the sting in his electric guitar, the powerhouse groove of his band. Whether that makes it the best of his solo albums depends on your tolerance for Rumor and Sigh’s textured Mitchell Froom production and your fondness for Mock Tudor’s suburban malaise, but it’s certainly a contender. And happily, following two sets of Acoustic Classics, one album of Acoustic Rarities, and the mostly-unplugged Still, this album is all electric, all the time. Thompson is one of our best acoustic guitar pickers; he is even more satisfying when he gets to let loose with a harrowing electric thrum, which he does over and over again here.

It’s a spare and uncluttered record—the very opposite of those busy Froom productions—yet it crackles with thunder and noise; it’s light on its feet even when delivering some of the stormiest music of Thompson’s career. A lot of that’s down to this crackerjack band: On “The Rattle Within,” a junkyard rag with pots-and-pans percussion, the rhythm section plays with an elastic pivot, lurching and grinding and pulverizing in perfect time with one another. “The Storm Won’t Come” billows and seethes, a dark twister zigzagging across the plain. There’s also credit due Thompson’s tunes, stalwart as ever. The Fairpoint Convention originator still has folk, not rock and roll, as his reference point, and he brings an appealing lilt to “O Cinderella,” a sea shanty with finger-picked glitter and an undercurrent of randiness (“O Cinderella, I’m not very housetrained it’s true/ but I want to dust cobwebs with you”). He’s convincing when he turns to power pop, too, as with the scruffy cords of “Do All These Tears Belong to You?” and the propulsive jangle of “You Can’t Reach Me.” Of course a guitarist of Thompson’s stature is contractually bound to offer the occasional slow blues, and he burns through a withering one here, a crawling menace called “The Dog in You.” These are all testaments to his rangy writing, and to the versatility of his band; like the best albums from Elvis Costello’s Attractions, 13 Rivers proves the pliancy of the four-piece rock and roll format.

The tenacity in this music—the growl in Thompson’s voice, the barbs emanating from his guitar, the band’s nimbleness and momentum—is invaluable: In lesser hands, these songs could easily curdle. Thompson’s still got his quick wit about him, but on the whole this is one of his more mirthless collections. He says he wrote it in a season of intense personal trauma, and again and again he circles back to the two recurring themes in his body of work—love gone wrong and the corruption of the human heart (the two concepts not unrelated). Few songwriters match Thompson’s dim view of humanity and its monstrous impulse; even Nick Cave and Tom Waits temper their songs of total depravity with paeans to romance, but all of Thompson’s romances are doomed. 13 Rivers has one of his most bruising and raucous songs of sin: A more sinister sequel to Nick Lowe’s man-in-the-mirror “The Beast in Me,” Thompson’s “The Rattle Within” runs through Jesus, voodoo, and organized religion, finding none of them satisfying balms for the evil that dwells in a man’s soul. “He wears your shirt and he wears your shoes/ He’s living there right inside your skin,” Thompson growls. It’s the oldest horror story in the world, about the man who keeps doing evil even though he doesn’t want to. “You’ve got notions, he’s got notions,” the song goes, Romans 7:19 rendered in its Thompson Standard Version.

It’s not the album’s only window into the heart of darkness. On “Trying,” an ominous pulse, Thompson sings: “If I should fall, fall off the shelf/ I’m only trying to be true to myself”—but if he’s a hostage to the rattle within, maybe being true to himself is part of the problem? “The Dog in You” is bleaker still, a startling confrontation with someone who derives pleasure in causing other people pain. And in the closing song, “Shaking the Gates,” Thompson knows he has only himself to blame for whatever misery he’s caused; “All I’ve done is lead myself astray,” he sings. Anyone who perceives misogyny in all those songs about untrue women is overlooking just how often Thompson puts himself under the microscope; in his world, waywardness is an equal opportunity offender. And here, he entertains one of his darkest notions right out of the gate. In the opening “The Storm Won’t Come,” he plays the role of Travis Bickle, waiting for a real rain to come and wash away all the sin and misery. “I’m longing for a storm to blow through town/ And blow these sad old buildings down/ Fire to burn what fire may/ And rain to wash it all away,” Thompson sings. It’s his break-glass scenario to deal with the rattle within. And if the storm won’t come, he’ll make one of his own. 13 Rivers is it—an album of intoxicating rage and holy thunder; the work of a dark master still fighting for the light.

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