Thursday, December 3, 2009

Classic Album: Sweet Warrior by Richard Thompson

While getting ready to compile my "Top Ten of 2009" album list to share with my equally geeky pals and palesses, I checked my iTunes library to see what I've listened to the most. Not surprisingly, the 2007 album by Richard Thompson, "Sweet Warrior" was the album I listened to the most. I hereby name it the best album of the last five years, and quite possibly my favorite Richard Thompson album, no mean feat.

A critical darling and a "guitarist's guitarist", he's never had big hit album. He gets some nice royalty checks, I'm sure, from the cover versions of his songs by such people as Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, The Corrs, The Pointer Sisters (!) and lots of other folks. I went to see him at the long-lost Palms Playhouse in 1985 or so on the strength of the Rolling Stone magazine review of his current album at the time "Across A Crowded Room", and I haven't looked back since. I've seen him dozens of times since, by himself or with a band. Anyone I've ever introduced to his concert experience has been lightning-bolted like Saul on the road to Damascus.

He's that good.

But back to "Sweet Warrior". I've neglected it over the last several months because it was completely intertwined with my last failed relationship. In fact our last "date" was to see him in Santa Cruz. Of course he was fantastic, my beloved was blown away too, and I thought that it was right and good in a perverse way that Mr. Gloom & Doom himself, Richard Thompson, would serve as the punctuation to that bittersweet stab at rekindled love.

But I couldn't listen to him for awhile. My favorite artist, and I couldn't bear to listen to him. The horror.

But last night, I manned up and decided to give it a spin. Then another. Then another. Then some tequila. Then another tequila. Then tequila some more. Then another spin. Then muted foggy daylight. Sigh.

If you don't have it already, you need to buy it. That's an order. Then you have to listen to it. Tequila optional.

Track 1 - "Needle & Thread".

This jaunty number describes in humorous fashion various relationships gone wrong after which the singer must get a needle and thread to sew his heart back together again. He gets extra credit for using names of girls who rarely make it into rock songs, like Caitlin and the beautiful Welsh name Myfanwe. (Myfanwe runs off with a guy named Dai.) Nice crunchy guitar solos.

Track 2-"I'll Never Give It Up"

He's pissed at somebody. Maybe a stalker? (I'd better watch out). Nice line "You're someone I can't help but betray / Because you built me up that way..."

Track 3-"Take Care The Road You Choose".

The heartbreaker. My favorite on an album of favorites. Still a bit tough to listen to, but its overwhelming beauty compels me. Every verse of the beautiful lyric is punctuated by his fluid, melancholy yet uplifting guitar work, and the solos give me chills. Chills, Jerry.

Track 4 "Mr Stupid"

From the sublime to the ridiculous in one song. Ridiculously good song though.
Clear the streets and book your seats, Mr. Stupid's back in town.
I like this line:
"When your friends point out your stuck with a Neanderthal for an ex
Don't fret about it, darlin, I still sign my name on cheques..."

Track 5 "Dad's Gonna Kill Me"

This is the one that got all the (limited) press. NPR highlighted it on "All Songs Considered" and he played it for Terri Gross on Fresh Air. It's from the point of view of a soldier fearing for his life in Baghdad ('dad for short.) I think it was a single. I can't see the kids dancing to it, but a great song nonetheless.

Track 6 "Poppy Red"

This beautiful song is about a girl who died. Par for the course for Mr. Cheerful and lighthearted. Not.
"Now my love makes her bed
Where poppies grow over her head
There in a field, there in a field
Warm and red - as the blood she shed"

Track 7 "Bad Monkey"

Very fun very catchy song with sax and accordian solos. Don't hold that against it. It's advice to someone about ditching their loser boyfriend.

"Where's the joy in a boy who dribbles when he drinks his tea
I've seen better manners from a baby chimpanzee..."

Track 8 "Francesca"

A broody number praising Francesca. Nice beat. This one snuck into my favorites on the album upon repeated listening.

Track 9 "Too Late To Come Fishing"

Has RT added a fishing song to his oeuvre? Nah. This one's about somebody
fake. Sweet harmony by Michael Hays on this one.

"But now you want to make a new start
I'm so touched by your change of heart
But my diary's fit to overflow
Find yourself another gigolo..."


Track 10 "Sneaky Boy"

This one's dressing down some sneaky boy. Handclaps, unique melody, and this couplet. Top this, Bernie Taupin:

"Spleen of Mammon, Spleen of Midas
Now you scold us, now you chide us.."

Track 11 "She Sang Angels To Rest"

Very sweet ballad about a summertime love. How do you fall when you already fell for the best?

Track 12 "Johnny's Far Away"

The album closes with three monsters right in a row. If it weren't for "Take Care The Road You Choose", the next three songs would be in a dead heat for favorite song on the album. Kicking off with "Johnny's Far Away", a modern sea shantey about a guy in an unhappy marriage who signs on with a cruise ship as part of a Ceilidh band. (Ceilidh pronounced "Caley" is a Scottish traditional dance form. Some cruise ship, huh!) While Johnny's far away on the rolling sea, his unhappy wife is making time with someone on the side, in their own bedroom after she puts on a video to babysit the kids. Meanwhile, while the cruise ship is turning hard a-port in the Bahamas, Johnny's helping some matron out of her pyjamas. At the end of the song, Johnny stumbles home with "eleven battered roses", perhaps my favorite image on the album. My beloved pointed out to me that she saw it as he fished them out of a trash bin on the way home from the pub. I agree with her. The couple reconcile at the end of the song, and "get down to the job of man and wife..."

Track 13 "Guns Are The Tongues"

This fine lyric is complex and full of imagery. The tune is swell too. It's about Carrie, a woman in the IRA who has a little gang that attacks British soldiers. She gets recruits by seducing them in her bed. She comes across a guy named Joe who is a dullard, but very tall. The other guys derisively call him "Little Joe" because his head scrapes the ceiling. Carrie tells Joe she'll "lie like a rose on his pillow, and will twine the laurel in his hair." Don't know about you, but if a woman told me that, I'd be putty in her hands.

Joe's mission is to drive a car-bomb into a roadblock full of soldiers. He is supposed to jump clear at the last moment so he doesn't get blowed up. But Joe's a dullard, remember? He's worried that he'll scrape his knees on the pavement if he jumps out. So he blows up. Soldiers investigating the explosion "marvel at how far his boots had travelled". Simply a great song.

Track 14 "Sunset Song"

This one's another heartbreak. A beautiful finger-picking intro on the ol' acoustic. The singer is taking his leave of a lover in yet another failed romance. Someone who wants him to love her in total depth, and yet that's not good enough.

"You said if I held my breath, and dove down deep enough, I might grow fins.
Seems to me I've held my breath, held my breath to please you ever since..."

The perfect ending to a pretty perfect album.

I can't recommend it highly enough.


Deeky said...

Top this, Bernie Taupin

yeah, that is a million times better than "jesus wants to go to venus and leave levon far behind."

Mark said...

Hi Ken,
Nice critique of what I agree is the best CD I have heard released in the last few years. I also enjoy the Edmund Spenser sonnet at the beginning.

I love almost everything about 'Poppy Red', which haunts me regularly in my virtual Ipod, and is on his MySpace site. But I wonder if Mr T was aware of the WW1 story about Flanders poppies turning red because of the blood of the soldiers who died there. Isn't that why people often wear poppies on November 11?

Thompson remains a fat trip - getting to know each of his CDs is always a succession of discoveries.