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Quite Literally Stunning
on May 30, 2007
I can't believe that it's been about twenty-five years since Richard Thompson set off on his solo career. I know, some may gripe with that date, (rightly) pointing out his 1972 album "Henry the Human Fly," but he subsequently teamed with then-wife Linda for a series of stunning albums that will remain masterpieces of their genre. I am referring to the part of his career that followed all that hubbub. Either way, I have bought every official album and every `semi-official' website release with his name on it. If you count everything since "Henry," that's about forty albums of material I own, so I feel very qualified when I say that "Sweet Warrior" is Richard Thompson's best collection of songs in quite some time.
The most rewarding aspect of being a fan is when an artist is talented enough to be consistently challenging, yet kind enough to maintain a predictable level of consistency. I have never bought a Richard Thompson record that left me unmoved, but the above characteristics occasionally thwarted one another. Recent works, like "Front Parlor Ballads" and the "Grizzly Man" soundtrack, were interesting, challenging works, but the very nature of these projects rendered them less consistent than I would have hoped. "Sweet Warrior" marks a return to fully realized compositions, with full band accompaniment and what is by now a predictably stunning degree of songwriting prowess. Every song here rewards multiple listens, but a few grow to gargantuan proportions. "I'll Never Give It Up" rocks with a wrath that matches the lyrical intensity, while "Take Care the Road You Choose" may be the most gentle and poignant tale of regret I have ever heard. "Mr. Stupid" is a rocker that captures the sting of divorce by wrapping it in bitter irony, while the upbeat rhythm of "Bad Monkey" (which resembles "Tear Stained Letter") somehow manages to takes a playful look at emotional abuse. The centerpiece, though, is "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," (It took me a while to figure it out - I'm a bit dense - but `Dad' is shorthand for Baghdad), told from the perspective of a soldier who has grown fully aware of his awful predicament. A revealing comment arrives in the song's bridge, when the soldier observes, "At least we're winning on the Fox Evening News."
By now, it's a cliché to discuss the brilliance of Thompson's guitar playing, but he's firing on all cylinders throughout "Sweet Warrior." The band is also top-notch, especially the entrancing accompaniment of Thompson's longtime acoustic bassist Danny Thompson (no relation). It would be rude to call "Sweet Warrior" a return to form, but this collection boasts a thoroughly satisfying combination of intriguing lyrics, fully realized songs, astounding instrumentation, and heartfelt vocalizing. Once it grabs hold, it never lets go. Whether you judge from the earliest phase of his career or from his twenty-five year run of solo releases, "Sweet Warrior" rates with the very best work of Thompson's long and varied career. A Tom Ryan