Richard Thompson is one of the few songwriters who can still invest the most pessimistic sentiments with a streak of bitter humour.
Some of the songs on this amplified band set have been road-tested during the English bard’s solo acoustic travels. These two aspects of his career share unavoidable similarities, but Thompson in an electrified state attains a very different level of intensity when contrasted with his unplugged wandering minstrel persona.
The sessions were recorded in Nashville, with guitarist Buddy Miller in the producer’s chair. Unusually, Thompson decided to limit his line-up to a trio, with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome.
Stony Ground begins as if it’s already been in progress long before we arrived, stomping and clapping into another tale of small-town scandal. It’s a sneering, caustic critique, and Thompson is the village gossip.
The singer often insists that his characters are imaginary, but it’s difficult to avoid the temptation of believing that these are truthful tales from Thompson’s own sordid life.
Thompson’s classic folk rock formula is revived once more, and his frequent guitar solos are as sour as his lyrical wit. There’s often an atonal extremity to these searing outbursts that would make many of them equally welcome on the battlefront of the avant-garde.
Salford Sunday is a more relaxed, mournfully jazzy amble, with mandolin and a big bass drum boom, its guitar solo almost replete with a country twang.
Most of these songs are concerned with doomed romance, bitter and sweet in turns.
Sally B’s verses alternate with guitar solos, each equally eloquent, then Stuck on the Treadmill shifts subjects to the grind of working life. Sadness consumes My Enemy, a ballad with its love/hate sentiments reaching to the extremes.
There’s a dip during the middle of the album, but Straight and Narrow slams back in with a perky garage soul ditty, then The Snow Goose is another morose ballad.
Alison Krauss sings a duet, and Siobhan Maher Kennedy elsewhere contributes harmony vocals, both guests unavoidably recalling the character of Linda Thompson.
Closer Saving the Good Stuff for You is borderline cheery, but do we believe Thompson? Could this just be a pre-doom love song, before the decay infests this particular relationship?