Richard Thompson: The Greatest Artist You Don’t Know

The boxed set has become the de rigueur honor for any aging pop musician who is A.) still around, B.)  still pumping it out and C.)  has enough fans to make it worth someone’s while to produce one of these things. Richard Thompson, who began his career in the '60s as a songwriter and lead guitarist for the English band Fairport Convention, has been at it long enough to warrant his second box! The noteworthy thing is that—drum roll, please—he deserves it. And this new box, “The Life and Music of Richard Thompson” ( Free Reed ), brings its subject into focus so vividly that even those of us who have followed his career over four decades can freshly apprehend his remarkable achievements.

Oh, sure, anyone who has ever heard a Thompson album or attended one of his concerts knows he’s a great songwriter, a guitar player with almost no equal and the owner of a voice that, while not perfect, is more than good enough for rock and roll. What may not be so obvious to any but the most obsessive fan is what a consistent artist he’s been.

“The Life and Music” proves that beyond any doubt with a format perfectly suited to showing off Thompson’s talent. Where most boxed sets are chronological, exhibiting the artist’s or band’s development over time, this one mixes old tunes with new ones and studio takes with live performances—and none of it with an eye on the calendar.

Volume one features songs by Thompson drawn from or inspired by actual events. Volume two is a sort of greatest-hits collection voted on by Thompson fans. Volume three puts the spotlight on live performances featuring extended solos, both acoustic and electric (and all electrifying). Volume four is covers of songs ranging from “Danny Boy” to Who material and covers of Thompson’s songs by other artists. Volume Five is unreleased material, including an ode to Alexander Graham Bell, musical advice to Janet Jackson (post-“wardrobe malfunction”) and a coupling of a Thompson song, “Lucky in Life, Unlucky in Love” with a version of the fiddle tune “Dirty Linen” that proves that Thompson is as distinctive a mandolin player as he is a guitarist. Nearly all the songs featured in this box are performed live, either on stage or in recording or radio studios and are previously unreleased on any album.

The result of this organizational plan is that you see the career as a sort of eternal present, as if any of the songs might have been written yesterday. Remarkably, it works. Nothing here—and the song list runs to about 80 songs—sounds dated. There is no disco period to live down, no glam rock to wince at, no electronica era to omit. Instead, the material has a consistency of intent and execution that puts it totally at odds with the faddish history of most other pop music. One has to look to the likes of Dylan to find someone who has written this many good songs over the same length of time.

Thompson came out of the '60s British folk revival, when U.K. rock bands were discovering Child ballads and other ancient British music, in the same way the Byrds, Gram Parsons and other American performers were making rock out of everything from Merle Haggard to Southern mountain ballads and the blues. Beginning with Fairport Convention and then as a solo performer, Thompson made a habit of writing in the idiom of songs older than his great-grandparents. What set him apart from the start was his ability to write without sounding like he was merely copying, In the 168-page booklet included in this box, author Nigel Schofield gets it exactly right when he singles out a line from the gorgeous ballad “Dimming of the Day”: "'Now all the bonnie birds have wheeled away,’ is as close to a line from a Bothy Ballad [19th-century Scots topical songs] as anything folk-rock produced, being neither slavish imitation nor pastiche.”

The songs on his first solo record, “Richard Thompson Starring as Henry the Human Fly” (1972) sound both old and new at once. To take one example, “The Poor Ditching Boy,” opens with an image that could come straight out of a poem by Thomas Hardy: “Was there ever a winter, so cold and so sad/The river too weary to flood/The storming wind cut through to my skin/But she cut through to my blood.” This is a man with a very long view of time, and when he recently mounted a tour whose theme was “1,000 Years of Popular Music,” it was obvious that not only was he one of the few musicians capable of doing such a thing without falling on his face, he was the only one who could do it with equal parts serious intent and tongue-in-cheek humor. The set list began with the medieval Britain hit “Sumer Is Icumen In” and ran straight through modern Britney’s “Oops! … I Did It Again.” The best example of this sort of stretch in the boxed set is a live medley of Morris dances (traditional English folk dances) that seques straight into Billy C. Riley’s rockabilly classic “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll.”

No one this side of Randy Newman—one of the few musicians with whom Thompson shares much territory—writes funnier songs. They share a jaundiced, if not downright dim outlook on most human endeavor. And both seem to relish the risk of being misunderstood, since they habitually write lyrics from the point of view of others more miscreant than themselves. The voices in Thompson songs often belong to the mad and the murderous, the alcoholic and the dispossessed, even a grave robber or two. Then, suddenly, there is a voice as old and burnished as time itself singing about a small-time crook’s twin loves for his fantastic motorcycle and his equally fantastic girlfriend (“red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme”).

“1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” first released in 1991, is Thompson’s most requested song, and no wonder. It’s one of those songs that, the first time you hear it, it’s like you’ve known it forever. There’s no fat in the telling of this tragedy of a high-octane highwayman and his lady. The ornament is in the musical setting, although separating things out like that doesn’t serve the song very aptly. What makes “Vincent Black Lightning” work is the way everything works together. Words, music, performance—it’s all one, with a melody nicely tailored to Thompson’s raggedly effective voice, which in turn partners with finger-picked guitar accompaniment nimble enough to banish any hint of gravitational pull for the duration of the song. There really is no explaining how someone plays a guitar that well.

And there’s the real problem with this guy—or rather, a part of the real problem: The things critics can talk about—the lyrics, the artist’s dark and complicated vision—give a distorted notion of who this gentleman is. They make him sound like an English professor with a Telecaster, and while it’s not to say that more English professors couldn’t improve their acts with a Telecaster, it’s plainly not a notion that’s won Thompson anywhere near the number of fans he deserves. And when you start talking about his roots in traditional music, you might as well post a film clip from “Spinal Tap” where they go all twee (“Stonehenge, where the demons dwell/Where the banshees live and they do live well”).

Then there’s his singularity, which is a good thing, but it means that he’s so not like other artists that you can’t do the “sounds like … [the Beatles/Neil Young/Nellie Melba]” sorts of comparisons. (And yeah, there’s that Randy Newman comparison and a quick nod to Dylan in this very article, but when you compare a musician to talents so insistently, eccentrically themselves, the similarities you’re talking about are not similarities of sound but similarities of attitude, which still gives an innocent reader no clue.) It was nice to see an interview included in this set’s booklet in which Thompson himself admitted to having his own problems with self-labeling. When he met the queen, he didn’t want to say he was a guitarist (Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page had already been introduced), so he settled for saying, “I’m a singer and songwriter,” to which she replied, “That must be lovely for you.” Plainly the queen, like a lot of other people, needs to have a listen.

Most sets of this sort serve as memorials to accomplishments in the past tense. It’s easy to think of them, sitting there on the shelf, as little headstones to careers. This box is more like a milestone, a means of taking stock of a career that’s very much still in progress. And like all genuine art, it satisfies completely even as it leaves you wondering hungrily what this fellow has left up his sleeve.