Nick Drake has recently been lionised for his silken songs: acclaim that evaded him while he was alive. There were, however, two greater singer-songwriters to emerge from London’s vibrant ’60s folk scene: Richard Thompson and John Martyn, who were both also brilliant guitarists and captivating singers. Martyn, the ultimate genius, is no longer with us, thanks to lifestyle that would have killed most of us rather earlier. But Thompson is alive and well, and neither treading water nor relying on past glories. Rather he continues to release albums that carry all the immediacy of a first effort.
Anyone who has seen Thompson live knows all about the urgency he brings to his performances. It is impossible to sit there in a detached state. He grips you by the throat demands you absorb every syllable, and impales you on successive thrilling notes springing from his acoustic guitar.
Or in this case – as the title suggests – his electric guitar. This is no sudden Dylanesque sell-out to the evils of electrons, however, as Thompson has been spiking his songs with the instrument forever. But here there is particular focus on it, whether it is savaging the metal riff of Stuck On The Treadmill (about a steel-worker, you see), or creating the lyrical, almost Mark Knopfler-like solo in Another Small Thing In Her Favour. In support are crisp bass and drums (mostly Taras Prodaniuk and Michael Jerome) with flashes of Stuart Duncan’s dazzling fiddle.
As ever, for all the interest aroused by what’s happening instrumentally, the real story lies in the lyrics and singing. The album (recorded in Nashville) has been superbly mixed by Buddy Miller, so that Thompson’s voice sounds massive, without making the instruments seem small. It sneers and leers and teases and pleads as it delivers lyrics that, if observational, are always empathetic; if confessional, never maudlin.
The love songs have a twist like a knife delicately inserted between the ribs, and there are often deliciously tart lines like that contained in the title of Good Things Happen To Bad People. Perhaps the most intriguing lyric is My Enemy, about someone whose venom and spite are credited with spurring the protagonist – Thompson? – to continue his struggle to succeed.
The most beautiful song, The Snow Goose, sees Thompson revert to acoustic guitar (overlayed with hurdy-gurdy) as he offers an oneiric vision of a woman, with Alison Krauss providing muted harmonies.
The abiding flaw in Thompson’s work is that his melodies are not always as strong as the lyrics they carry, but he masks this well with ebullient accompaniment and the passion of his singing. In fact he dares you to doubt he means every word.
The album comes in two guises, one with a bonus disc of seven additional songs. Don’t hesitate: spend the extra dollars.