On Richard and Linda Thompson's landmark albums together -- which introduced piercing electric guitar and Cajun spice to the British folk Richard had helped define in Fairport Convention -- Richard's songs shuffled to the gallows, shadowed by Linda's pale-alto widow's walk. The two named the dirty street where the condemned find their survivors, then drag them down. In the twenty years since their marriage disintegrated over the open fire of their last album, Shoot Out the Lights, Richard has become the king of that avenue, cultivating a devout following with his trenchant songs and immediately recognizable guitar sound. But since her lone solo disc in 1985, Linda has been silent thanks to a long bout with hysterical dysphonia, a chronic and utterly muting stage fright.
But like a bartered bride emerging from the Tower of London, Linda Thompson doesn't care that she might have been queen. On the coyly titled Fashionably Late, her lyrics and gracefully weary singing -- restored to full power and sounding eerily unchanged -- are reminders that it's no better out here than it is in the dungeon.
Except for the help. Linda's first album in seventeen years includes Fairport Convention alums Jerry Donahue and Dave Mattacks (on guitar and drums, respectively), double-bass master Danny Thompson, California-pop eccentric Van Dyke Parks (on accordion), singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Nick Drake's string arranger, Robert Kirby, himself MIA the past 25 years. Oh, and Richard sings and plays on the opening "Dear Mary," an unlikely reunion that's all the more powerful for its offhandedness.
Late is a family album. The Thompsons' son Teddy (a veteran of his father's touring band whose own strong debut disc arrived last year) wrote or cowrote most of Late's songs, and he duets with his mother on "Evona Darling," its delicate centerpiece. Daughter Kamila sings backup. The fugitive's waltz "Dear Mary" includes all four.
This album's back page, though, is a snapshot of a past unforgotten. On the last song, Linda sings, Here's to the dreams that went awry/and to the tears I could not cry/For it was long ago that I said goodbye/to that dear old man of mine. The jaunty diplomacy of "Dear Mary" evaporates, and the effect is spellbinding. As Linda limbos under her son's guitar to reach her low last note, for a split second she hovers out of tune over his final chord. Momentarily unsteady, it's Linda's answer to Shoot Out the Lights' climactic question (from that album's "Did She Jump"), Did she jump or was she pushed? Neither. She came in off the ledge and paused a long time, then made a record worth the wait.