A hundred and ten on the old Hogs' Back
You don't have to read much light history--let alone Cormac McCarthy--to realize that as a nation our current reality is built upon an ossuary, a mountain of broken skulls and bones that reaches up from the past and points toward where we are now. It's terrible when you think about it, this legacy of survival, and it lives on in our blues and folk music. Imagine, however, how feathery its weight must seem when contrasted with the history of a country like England, whose record stretches back into three-digit "Happy New Year" banners.
According to Compton's Encyclopedia, the Hundred Years' War was interrupted by the Black Death, which killed over a quarter of the population. Great. The Middle Ages left great furrows in the British psyche--obvious when you consider the humor of Monty Python, often medieval to the extreme--and it gave the art of the scepter'd isle a dark cast ("As I was walking all alane/I heard twa corbies making a mane...") that continues to this day.
No musician better embodies that heritage than Richard Thompson, one of the greatest guitar stylists of the electric era. From his earliest days with Fairport Convention, he showed that few understand the potential of metal and magnetism better than he, able to wring tones from his guitar that run the gamut from anguish to epiphany but always seem to hold--sometimes many layers down--a dark morbidity. It's no pessimistic surrender--there's an optimism implicit in recording anything--but it's an over-the-shoulder glance at the dark woods behind, and it inspires a shiver even in the middle of a laugh.
It's a shiver he has courted throughout his career, from the black joke at the heart of "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman" and the sledgehammer weight of "Shoot Out the Lights" to his next-to-most recent album Mirror Blue's "MGB-GT." A song written in answer to the tiresome parade of jargon-laden American car songs, "MGB-GT" does the same thing, but in service of singing the praises of a British road machine--"Took the Rostyles off...Got a brand-new Salisbury axle"--in a song that should be a novelty knock-off. Instead, the song--backed up by pipes and concertina--rolls like a baroque processional, emphasizing not the differences in nomenclature but the current of devotion that flows through gearheads--and every other kind of "head"--everywhere like a deep, dark river.
His latest release, You? Me? Us?--a double-disc set that includes an electric and an acoustic half--is more of the same, and it shows that Thompson's electric power is matched by acoustic prowess, a skill that enables him to transmit as much emotion through graceful finger-picking as he does through amp-rattling howls. Lou Reed might have come up with the title "Magic and Loss," but Richard Thompson has the sound.
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