Ballads and Bones

Richard Thompson riffs on his new "Voltage Enhanced" and "Nude" double CD, the dubious joys of being a"musician's musician," and why the Left Banke deserves a tribute album.

Published April 6, 1996 6:56PM (EST)

Richard Thompson has been producing inspired albums with such consistency over the past decade that we are in a little danger of taking him for granted. Thompson has been a profoundly expressive guitarist, moody songwriter and grim wit from his days with the pioneering British folk-rock group Fairport Convention in the late '60s and early '70s; to his decade-long collaboration with ex-wife Linda, culminating in the classic "Shoot Out the Lights" (1982); to rewarding solo collections like "Across a Crowded Room" (1985), "Rumor and Sigh" (1991) and "Mirror Blue" (1994).

His new Capitol release, "You? Me? Us?," features 19 tracks divided between two CDs, one acoustic

and one electric. While the themes Thompson sings about in his haunted baritone are as defiantly bleak as ever ("Dark Hand Over My Heart" is an emblematic title), the music covers a wide spectrum of sound and feeling: the rockabilly bounce of "Am I Wasting My Love on You?" and "Train Don't Leave," the Celtic-tinged folk of "Sam Jones," the jittery rock of "Razor Dance," the mournful balladry of "Woods of Darney" and the achy R&B of "Hide It Away." It's a collection that will enchant the perpetually small cadre of Thompson devotees; it might even enlarge their ranks.

We talked to him over the phone from Los Angeles, which he calls home for the part of the year he doesn't spend in London.

Why'd you split "You? Me? Us?" into two separate CDs?

Originally we were going to do two versions of everything, acoustic and electric. That seemed a rather labored idea after a while. So it evolved into being pretty much two separate sets of tunes. And at some point it seemed a good idea to package it all together -- good idea from my point of view, bad idea from the record company's!

Each CD is about the length of an old LP, really.

You remember those, LPs, do you? Personally, I'm glad it's in listenable chunks. I think 40 minutes' worth is enough at a time. I'm glad I'm not taking too much of anyone's day. No one has to play it all at once. They can play a side and then go off to their drab daily lives, then stick on a Barry Manilow record, and then come back and play the other side on another day. I do feel that the two discs are complementary -- they belong in the same package, but not necessarily on the same record.

I suppose some of the reasoning behind this was that the electric side could be more wholly electric and the acoustic stuff could be more indulgently acoustic. Without having to compromise, without having to say, this Jimi Hendrix freakout doesn't exactly fit on the same record as this 14-verse acoustic murder ballad. If you see what I mean.

You've given the two parts these playful titles, "Voltage Enhanced" and "Nude." Is that how acoustic playing feels to you?

Yes. When you stand up acoustic in front of an audience, you really are a man without any clothes on. And that can be fun -- it depends how much of an exhibitionist you are, I suppose. I quite enjoy it.

Your only other acoustic album is "Small Town Romance," which was live.

I'm fully in favor of acoustic records, I just really haven't had the chance to release one. I have a slight logjam in terms of release. It'd be nice to put out another acoustic record -- and another live acoustic record.

You've got songs backed up?

I've got a record I just did with [acoustic bass player] Danny Thompson which is kind of thematic. It's about industrial Britain. It's probably going to be called "Industry," strangely enough. Very exciting -- gonna rocket up the charts, isn't it? It's about what industry meant in Britain. It's all disappeared very quickly, in just 20 years, in about one generation it's all gone. That's really changed people's lives, and we're just trying to document that change. It's impressionistic in some ways -- some instrumental, some songs.

It sounds a little bit in the vein of the "Hard Cash" collection you produced, of songs about the working life.

Vaguely. It'll probably sound different -- we have a lot of horns playing on it.

The electric portion of "You? Me? Us?" sounds rawer than in some of your recent work -- there's a little bit less of a sheen on it.

Oh, probably. I'm not sure we get too much sheen, anyway. Sheen or Sheena? We've never had Sheena on any of our records -- Sheena Easton. It's probably a bit starker than stuff we've done before, I can't really tell. There's even less instrumentation on it. It's mostly two guitars, bass and drums or one guitar. So that's pretty basic, isn't it?

Yet you draw on such an extraordinary palette of sounds. The sound that you get on "Hide It Away," rich and organ-like -- that's very different from the wild solos in "Put It There, Pal" or "No's Not a Word." Do you think of the guitar sound you're going to use as you write a a song?

I think it could happen any way, really. I think you could start out with a sound in your head and then think, well, is there a song that would actually work to this sound? Or sometimes your idea of the arrangement of a song can change considerably, and go through many different phases.

Are there specific guitarists whose work has been your inspiration?

Most of them are dead. A lot of dead guitarists. Any dead guitarist. Just the usual people -- um, gosh, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt. And I suppose people like Mike Bloomfield, Jerry Miller. Yeah, that'll do. I probably don't listen that much to guitar players. Other instruments are sometimes more inspiring. You listen to a piano player and you think, how could I do that with a guitar? Or you listen to an Irish piper and you think, how could I bend notes like that? Sometimes that's a more challenging exercise.

It sounds like you're letting yourself take more solos on "You? Me? Us?"

Well, it's my record, so I may as well. I thought because this record is many minutes, and because we have a whole electric side, then I might be able to slip a few more solos in. I'm always aware of time on a record. And I usually want to fill it up with songs. I'm the sort of guitar player that, if I have any virtue at all, it's as a player in a song, as opposed to a virtuoso instrumentalist. Usually on a record I restrain myself a bit more; when it comes to playing live I probably indulge myself a bit more. I'd rather have ten songs on an album that are four minutes than six songs that are eight minutes.

Yet the album of yours that most often turns up on critics' list, "Shoot Out the Lights," had fewer, longer songs.

I think it's just a short record, isn't it? Counting the minutes. How many songs is that?


Eight songs, gosh. Amazing. How did we get away with that? I'm not sure there's a lot of solos on that. People like short records. Short records are popular. For this very reason, I've just brought out a double album.

You often work in the ballad tradition, but it seems you write new ones more than you sing traditional ones.

I probably don't sing traditional ones because there's other people who sing them better. I love singing traditional songs, but I do it mostly at home. The ballad tradition is very inspirational. Surprisingly enough, I think people still like to listen to story-songs. In spite of everything -- in spite of MTV attention spans and harder-hitting forms of media -- people can still sit down for five minutes and listen to a story in a song. This surprises me, but I'm glad. It's a good thing. And I hope to continue to write some.

You've got a creepy kind of ballad on the new album, "Sam Jones," about a bone-collector. Is there really such a thing?

There are. When I was a kid, the bone-man would come around the street with a horse and cart -- collect bones. Used to grind them up to make glue or something. It was considered a recyclable commodity. The song's a kind of a far-fetched fantasy. I don't know where it came from. I don't remember writing it. It's one of those songs that sort of appeared, somewhere, in a notebook.

You've talked in the past about the sense of irony in some of your songs that you think people miss, maybe Americans miss because they're not as attuned to that kind of humor.

I'm not sure the English understand irony either. But they are more used to it. I just think the British are more cynical. Americans are much nicer people and tend to take you at face value. That's why sometimes American humor sometimes strikes me as too safe, or too conservative. Anyway, irony's there and you either get it or you don't. If you explain it, then you've lost it somehow.

So if I asked you to provide an example of an ironic song you probably wouldn't want to.

I'd have to give you an ironic answer, like "all of them or none of them." It's not really there at all. None of them. There is no irony in any of my songs!

It sounds like that's part of what you're getting at in the song "Razor Dance" -- the process of escalation from wit and irony to real anger.

It can hurt people, yeah. What people say can be very hurtful, that's just what it's saying. It's not necessarily about irony, but just when people speak their minds at each other -- especially in relationships, I think -- it can be very damaging.

The new song "Bank Vault In Heaven" sounds like a kind of angry hymn. What's it about?

I suppose it's about fear of the satellite world -- the Rupert Murdochs of this world, who control space, who control the satellites. It's such a global thing. I think it's kind of dangerous when you can reach billions of people. If that gets in the wrong hands, whoa -- look out, world.

And that's kind of where we are now.

Yeah. It seems like a real formula for the antichrist.

USA Today calls you "a musician's musician long beloved by critics but not yet embraced by the masses." Is that embrace something you're even thinking about at this point, waiting for or looking for?

I don't think that I make music for the masses by any stretch of the imagination. But I think I could certainly sell a lot more records, without trying that much harder. It's just a matter of getting a song or two on the radio, and that makes all the difference. It's just slipping into those little marketing opportunities, or whatever people do. It's all beyond me, I'm afraid. A "musician's musician" -- you know, what that really means is, obscure and poor. Obscure and underpaid.

There have now been two Richard Thompson tribute albums, and a boxed set, and you're still making new music.

I'm still alive.

Is there someone out there who you think deserves a tribute album but hasn't had one?

I hope it's all over -- I hope there aren't any more tribute albums. I think it's had its day. I think there's been enough.

There's no great, unsung songwriter who deserves it?

Well, there are somewhere. I can't think who they are now. How about a Left Banke tribute album?

Is that being ironic?

No. I love the Left Banke.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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