Album: Richard Thompson

Front Parlour Ballads, COOKING VINYL
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The Independent Culture

Save for a few overdubbed curlicues of his trademark lead guitar on "My Soul, My Soul", and percussionist Debra Dobkin's contributions to a couple of tracks, the entire album was written, played, sung and recorded by Thompson in his Los Angeles garage. The result is the kind of sustained intimacy that brings his unflinching observations into even sharper relief.

Thompson has an unerring eye for the things that split once-secure partnerships: the shortfalls in expectation, the half-truths, trust betrayed. Here, it's trained on characters such as the lover left behind in "For Whose Sake?", ruing pledges of fidelity and love; the man in "How Does Your Garden Grow?", resentful at his partner's presumption of moral superiority; the bullied boy of "When We Were Boys at School", who as an adult takes his revenge on the world; the terrorist in "Miss Patsy", seeking an old flame's absolution from his prison cell; the husband in "My Soul, My Soul", frustrated at his inability to arouse the depth of love he desires from his partner; and the observer in "Should I Betray?", wondering whether to disabuse a devoted wife of her illusions: "She thought the leopard's spots were paint/ She thought she'd turn you to a saint."

At its most extreme, the social atomisation that underscores many of Thompson's songs ultimately results in a situation like that in "A Solitary Life", where a man worn out by others' expectations hankers for freedom from family, society and friends, desperate to retreat to his shed to pursue his hobbies, gratefully acknowledging that it's "nice not to have to try too much".

Less damaging, but just as sad, Thompson also depicts the emotional petrification that prevents the protagonists of "Old Thames Side" and "Cressida" from proclaiming their love in the first place: the one struck dumb, awed by the beauty he glimpses at dockside, while the other dares not risk shattering the perfection of his ideal lover, cursed by a "love that holds its breath, for fear of scaring love away".

However, Thompson allows a degree of mordant dark humour into his songs. In "Row, Boys, Row", he offers a sardonic depiction of music-biz mores. And in the opener, "Let It Blow", the shortcomings of the ageing playboy trying to satisfy his latest young wife are recounted with gleeful, gloating hilarity: "A long interruption since his last eruption/ Was disguised by sheer devil-may-care/ But some charm and some skill and manoeuvre/ Had him rising to meet the occasion".