The world is made up of three possible types of people: those who love Richard Thompson's music, those who don't know Richard Thompson's music and those who flatly deny the potential of any guitar-based rock & roll rooted in English folk forms. These last need not bother to read this review. For the rest, we will tell the same story two ways.
If you love Richard Thompson, you have stood fast through some trying times this past decade. Thompson himself remained faithful to producer Mitchell Froom, despite that keyboardist's penchant for distorting the basic ingredients of the classic Thompson sound. Froom, as has been proved by his work with Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys, is a roots-music specialist who hates roots music, and he too often chooses to go with the unusual rather than the proven.
This worked out to a law of diminishing returns that was matched by Thompson's increasingly inconsistent songwriting. By the time of You? Me? Us?, the 1996 double album that ended their collaboration, Froom's lackluster approach to rhythm had buried completely what are probably Thompson's weakest songs in a long career.
So the man took some time off. He worked on side projects and has now returned with a new album produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who have worked with Beck and Elliott Smith. The band includes longtime concert partners Danny Thompson on bass and Dave Mattacks on drums, as well as Froom, who has considerable keyboard skills.
Rejoice! This is the best and most consistently enjoyable Richard Thompson album since 1988's Amnesia. The songs are richly melodic and stray from the formulas he's mined in his lesser work of late. Rothrock and Schnapf let Thompson interact with his band, especially Mattacks, and the instrumental passages consequently regain a bite they've long lacked on record. This is an album to remind you of Richard Thompson's genius.
Note to potential new fans: I said remind you of his genius. Though few records released this year come near the enthusiasm and inventiveness of Mock Tudor, there are at least half-a-dozen finer albums in the man's catalog. If you want to learn why rock critics and guitar aficionados go into ecstatic rapture at the mention of Richard Thompson's name, you should check out Shoot Out the Lights, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver (all recorded with then-wife Linda), Across a Crowded Room, Hand of Kindness and Amnesia.
If you insist on starting with Mock Tudor, try going straight to "Hard on Me," a cut on which Thompson and company fly straight into the heart of musical darkness and emerge with a potentially endless epiphany of rhythmic assault and twisted guitar notes. Oh yeah, and Thompson sings as if his voice could conquer fear through sheer force. Or try the jaunty tour through the "Sights and Sounds of London Town," or the catchy martial rhythms of "Sibella." These songs will invite you into Thompson's world, one in which the band negotiates tricky emotional dynamics that inevitably lead to the essential, undeniable release of classic rock & roll.
Those with no potential to enjoy Richard Thompson may lead perfectly decent lives. Those who love him, however, continue to seek out converts with all the fervor of those who have found musical inner peace.