Expatriate Games 

Richard Thompson builds an enduring legacy in the shadows

If critical acclaim were money, Richard Thompson could be vacationing in Bali with Mick Jagger.

by Chris Parker

If critical acclaim were money, Richard Thompson could be vacationing in Bali with Mick Jagger. Commercial success may have eluded him for 40 years, but only a handful of his peers have remained as vital, and the British guitarist’s supple fret work—never flashy and always in the service of the song—is esteemed on a level with Clapton, which ironically overshadows his fine songwriting.

It’s foolish to expect a late-career reassessment, but if anything could make Americans take notice, it’s Thompson’s new catchy, topical ditty, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” from the forthcoming Sweet Warrior (due in May).

The chorus, with its title line and the repeated sentiment, “nobody loves me here,” suggests family dysfunction, yet this isn’t Laguna Beach. From the road blocks and the dead soldier in the desert with vultures pecking out his eyes, it’s quickly apparent “Dad” is short for Baghdad. “It’s somebody else’s mess I didn’t choose,” sings the song’s grunt protagonist. “At least we’re winning on the FOX evening news.”

Speaking from Los Angeles, where he’s lived the last 20 years, Thompson says one reason he took aim at the war in Iraq was because it posed a relatively easy solution. (Tell it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

“It’s hard to write a snappy song about global warming,” he says. “The targets and solutions are elusive, whereas you just need to get a few congressmen fired up to change U.S. policy in a radical way.”

Thompson’s predilection for social commentary was evident on 1999’s Mock Tudor, which uses the concept of a walk from London’s core to its suburban outskirts to skewer class attitudes, and fits with the folk tradition from which he frequently draws.

“Political protesting has always been there, because folk’s basically the music of the underclass,” he says. Thompson got his musical start in 1967, when he helped found Fairport Convention, blending harmony-rich folk-rock with traditional folk styles of the British Isles. He continues to explore the intersection of folk with blues, rock and other styles. (2003’s live album, 1000 Years of Popular Music, covers medieval folk to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again,” about which Thompson says, “Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song.”)

After leaving Fairport Convention in ’71, Thompson performed with then-wife Linda Thompson for a decade, then embarked on a post-divorce, up-and-down solo career. The commercial returns were spotty, but Thompson’s songwriting evolved with a growing emphasis on the dark ballads he’s since become known for, such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

“I thought I was writing in a very 20th century way—very cinematically, and not having a lot of preamble or postscript—basically three terse verses that throw you into the middle of the action, and don’t really explain much about anything. Which I think of as real 20th century,” Thompson says. “When people pointed it out, I said, ‘You’re right, I’m writing 16th century ballads and I hadn’t really noticed.’ But it’s not a bad thing to write contemporary versions of a much older model.”

Mock Tudor was his last record on a major, and Thompson appreciates the freedom offered by an indie, describing his last two albums as “a purer vision.” Whether that ever translates into sales may be beside the point: it’s already shaped his career, and possibly explains the quality of his continued output, when most artists his age have fallen off.

“It can be kind of handy not being so exposed because the expectations are lower. People aren’t looking for that platinum album again,” he admits. “Your career is less record-driven and more concert-driven. The audience develops through word of mouth rather than radio visibility, and it’s a more loyal audience, which is great.”

Thompson pauses a moment, his sardonic wit surfacing. “Lack of success is a great thing,” he deadpans. “I recommend it to everyone.”

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