I’ve never really liked the word “idiosyncratic”. It feels like a lazy, monumentally overused cliché – especially by seasoned music hacks – which ostensibly (oops, there’s another one!) means “like itself”. The problem is, the damn thing fits Richard Thompson like a Latex balaclava. Nobody really sounds like Richard Thompson.
Except Richard Thompson.
It’s astonishing to think that, in this day and age, he still gets referred to as “the former Fairport Convention man” in the vast majority of articles that have graced the pages of countless magazines and dedicated web pages over the years, especially when you consider that he left that band a whopping forty four years ago!
What’s perhaps even more surprising though, is that on ‘Still‘, he closes the album with a song called ‘Guitar Heroes’, in which he fawns over the idols of yesteryear and stands stageside, mouth agog in boyish wonder, confessing “I still don’t know how my heroes did it“. It’s very humbling to realise that one of the greatest guitarists of our generation is effectively still in awe of his peers!
It’s an interesting little ditty though, paying homage to those heroes by performing short vignettes of some of their best known pieces after celebrating them at the end of each verse; hence we get snippets of The Shadows’ ‘FBI‘, ‘Susie Q’ by Dale Hawkins and a blast of Chuck Berry‘s ‘Little Queenie’ along the way. It’s all splendid fun.
The thing is, Thompson is not only a remarkable guitarist. As Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy – who produced this album – says, “Richard’s been one of my favourite guitar players for a very long time. When I think about it, he’s also one of my favourite songwriters and favourite singers. He’s the Ultimate Triple Threat”. Tweedy has certainly brought the best out in him too – there’s only one word that can adequately describe ‘Still‘ (well, apart from ‘idiosyncratic’, obviously) and that’s “masterful”.
Travelling is a theme which features a lot on ‘Still‘, whether it is the restless madam on the richly beautiful opener ‘She Never Could Resist A Winding Road’ – a soft lilting march that sounds like a song from the Scottish Highlands – or the disenchanted but spirited troubadour of ‘Beatnik Walking’, leaving the monotonous grind of life and the horror of each day’s televised tragedies behind for the simple pleasures of Amsterdam “where good things come in threes“. Whether Thompson is referring to windmills, tulips and bicycles or if he means something rather more unsavoury, who knows? Either way, who could begrudge the man?
Musically, the latter track sounds something akin to Paul Simon rewriting Peter Gabriel‘s ‘Solsbury Hill’, and while it could hardly be considered deep and meaningful, I’d personally place it pretty high up in the great man’s already exceptional canon.
You want deep though? Deep is here in abundance. Witness, if you will, the fractured starkness of ‘Broken Doll’, a helpless look into the eyes of someone with mental illness – “Wish I could give love to you, and life to you, and hope to you“, laments Thompson, and regretfully continues “As you look through me to something else, in your eyes I think I see…twisted up infinity – angel soul imprisoned in a shell“. It’s one of the most affecting moments here, a feeling of wanting to be able to help but not knowing quite how.
Or there’s Exhibit B, the Jesse Owens of tunes that is ‘Dungeons For Eyes’. Owens, of course, refused to shake Adolf Hitler‘s hand at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and this, as Thompson himself has acknowledged – pretty much sums up what the song is about – meeting someone, perhaps a politician, who you know is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of innocent people in the past due to their actions. “He’s smiling at me, the man with the blood on his hands/the man with the snakes in his shoes/Am I supposed to love him?“, enquires the guitarist, skeptically.
Of course, there are lewder moments, often tremendous fun, such as ‘All Buttoned Up’, a more uptempo number that complains of its subject’s apparent frigidity, or the entertaining ‘Long John Silver’, a straightforward four minute rocker which realises that perhaps our protagonist placed a tad too much trust in someone he shouldn’t have. It’s plain to see that Thompson is having a lot of fun here, emphasizing the most pirate-like moments with frivolous abandon. “There’s nothing but black in a pirate’s harrrrt“, he intonates playfully, and I can’t help wondering if Tweedy persuaded him to add this humorous twist. I wouldn’t be suprised anyway, and it works like a dream.
Perhaps the finest posy in the bunch though is ‘Pony In the Stable’, a quite bitter lyric (“Forgive me if I sneer, you’re used to being Cleopatra/you don’t like to hear the stuff you dish out come back at you“), arguably aimed at a former lover, coupled with a galloping splendour that is quite irresistible.
Richard Thompson has proved once again that he is one of the most talented songwriters and guitarists of the last half century. Still.