Right now the studio may just be the most important instrument.
Think about it: Live music, that ephemeral, magical, simultaneously intimate and mass experience, is off the table (and likely not coming back soon), thanks to COVID-19. Live streams and virtual shows are cool and all, but this really seems like the moment for the master document itself: the record.
And the record is born in the studio. And the studio is an instrument that — let’s face it — not everyone knows how to play. You gotta know how mics behave. You gotta know how to read (and modify) a room’s acoustics. You gotta create something that can live in headphones and car speakers and home stereo systems and (shudder) earbuds. And, in a lot of cases, you gotta think in terms of instrumentation that probably wouldn’t be realistic onstage but that would sound pretty dang sweet buried in the mix and panned left.
This is all to say that Teddy Thompson‘s new Heartbreaker Please is an infectious and textured pop-leaning rock and roll album because Thompson can spin a killer melody, sure, but also because he can play the hell out of a studio.
“Will you come back / heartbreaker please?” Thompson — yes, the son of Linda and Richard Thompson — croons on the title track. “Will you come back / with all my dreams?” It’s a three-minute doomed romance pop tune, peppy and driving and lonesome and undeniably ’50s-esque all the way down to Thompson’s rhyme scheme. Gently chiming mandolin and a gorgeous clean electric guitar are essential and welcome elements in its enveloping wall of sound.
Because, really, what we have here is two treats in one: Thompson is an accomplished songwriter and producer alike. Accordingly, Heartbreaker Please is rich with infectious melody and pop lyricism, but also with attentive production and serious timbral variety. These are thick and textured tunes that thump nicely but retain definition in a car stereo while also rewarding close listens through a decent pair of headphones.
Instrumentation-wise, there’s the Sgt. Pepper-esque strings on “Take Me Away” and the horns on “At a Light.” Giddy doo-wop number “Record Player” describes a search for appealing music among songs that do absolutely nothing for the singer, playfully lamenting “the world’s an elevator,” as it swings and bops along with a brass section and period-evocative backing vocals that reflect Thompson’s unabashed and unsurprising love of ’50s pop.
Heartbreaker Please is fun — very fun — but on many cuts Thompson is laughing to keep from crying. The tunes that abandon the pep cut straight to the heart. Slow burner “No Idea” casts Thompson’s post-breakup desolation in beautiful metaphors (“I’m a house with no foundation”) and straightforward honesty (“the therapy is helping / but I still feel mostly sad”). “No Idea” plays like an especially down-and-out My Morning Jacket number, and its long, dramatic bridge is Heartbreaker Please’s emotional apex. “We are truly alone / no one cares / no one phones,” an unguarded Thompson sings, his spirit broken but his voice strong. “And the light’s going out / and you’re down for the count.”
No, we can’t touch the unshielded wire that is live music right now, but recorded music — and especially when done thoughtfully and with close attention — can be its own means to an end.