Dream Attic – a mixed bag from Richard Thompson
By Richard Thompson
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
You never know which Richard Thompson you’ll meet when you play one of his albums for the first time. His last studio release, 2007’s ‘Sweet Warrior’ was a sonic masterpiece that featured some of the guitarist’s most creative work ever, backed up by lyrics and songs that made it one of the best in his forty year canon. Yet, his recorded output has been maddeningly inconsistent as a quick look through his back catalogue reveals. The impression created by indispensible works such as ‘Sweet Warrior’ or “Across a Crowded Room” is unfortunately watered down by weak kneed efforts such as 2005’s wan and listless “Front Parlour Ballads.” “Dream Attic” his newest collection of songs never quite reaches the level of intensity maintained by “Sweet Warrior”, but neither is it a waste of time or money. It is a very difficult album to assess, and in the two months I’ve been listening to “Dream Attic”, I’ve been all over the map as far as what to say about it, and I’m still not sure whether I’ve figured out what I think, but here goes.
To begin, Richard Thompson probably couldn’t care less what I – or any other critic – thinks of ‘Dream Attic.’ He is so prolific and restlessly creative that he’s probably moved well beyond the songs featured here and is rehearsing a whole new set of tunes on his back porch or in a studio somewhere. Like others of his generation – Van Morrison and Neil Young come to mind – Thompson has always taken a journeyman’s approach to his art form and released new music whenever he has enough songs culled together. While this establishes a no frills approach and is a refreshing counterpoint to a music business that caters to big acts that release a new album only once every five years to great fanfare and calculated media blitzes, one can’t help but wish artists like Mr. Thompson would edit and carefully consider the material they offer for release a little more stringently.
In a nutshell, ‘Dream Attic’ is almost a great album. In fact, it’s half of a great album, for the music is absolutely wonderful. The guitar playing is blistering and every one of Thompson’s extended solos is brilliantly executed and stunningly creative. The voice and tone that he has developed and continued to expand throughout his career is truly unparalleled in popular music. To say that my jaw dropped and I stopped what I was doing when I first heard the squonking feedback drenched solo in “Money Shuffle” the opening track, would be an understatement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played it back this summer, still finding something new with each listen. Similarly, the guitar work, inverted melodies and truly inspired progressions on “Demons in her Dancing Shoes” and “Big Sun falling in the River” are in themselves justification for buying “Dream Attic”, but unfortunately the songs are continually let down by their weak lyrical content. After the sparks die down and one looks past the smoking pyrotechnics of Thompson’s guitar playing, there just isn’t much to the songs.
When Thompson’s at the top of his game, he is one of the best song writers in the business. Songs such as “When the Spell is Broken”, “Ghosts in the Wind” or “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” and many, many others reveal that he’s no stranger to poignant and witty turns of phrase. But, the songs on “Dream Attic” are – almost without exception – strident, chippy, impatient and uncharacteristically macho in their approach. Quite frankly listening to a man in his sixties singing about street fighting and other such pursuits as Thompson does here can be more than a little embarrassing. And, as fine as the music on ‘The Money Shuffle’ is, the lyrics are so cliched and over the top that it’s hard to imagine a first year writing professor giving it more than a passing grade. It’s one thing to adopt a persona in a song, but the characters Thompson describes heres are often overwrought or poorly drawn, and one often wishes that the vocal tracks could be erased and the songs could be enjoyed as instrumentals. The angry outbursts which drove songs like “Dad’s gonna Kill me” from ‘Sweet Warrior’ somehow worked, but these lyrics almost without exception chafe and take away from the power of the songs. Ironically, it is when Thompson strives the least – as on the catchy “Haul Me Up” – that he is the most successful.
Perhaps part of the problem with ‘Dream Attic’ is that it is essentially a live album of new material and the lyrics he sings are admittedly still presented in an embryonic form and could use some careful rewriting. Many artists from the aforementioned Neil Young to England’s Billy Bragg regularly sing unrecorded music in concert as a way of woodshedding the songs and gauging audience reaction. Yet, rather than do that Thompson decided to released the album – warts and all – recognizing the intensity of the instrumental work. The crack band he assembled for a series of intimate gigs along America’s west coast in Seattle, Portland, Eugene and San Francisco is truly second to none and the interplay between the musicians is stunning throughout. Guided by Michael Jerome and Taras Prodaniuk on drums and bass respectively, you can literally hear the sparks fly as Thompson spars with Peter Zorn on strings and sax and Joel Zifkin on electric violin.
As I admitted at the beginning, ‘Dream Attic’ is a very difficult CD to assess. It would be easy to write it off because of the often inane and weak lyrical content, and I was tempted to do that and take the easy way out. But, that wouldn’t do the album justice. I realize, too, that Richard Thompson fans are a very loyal lot and are seriously reluctant to take anything away from their idol, but it must be admitted that the lyrical muse was absent while he was penning these words and pointing this out in no way diminishes his overall contribution to music over the last four decades. Musically speaking, ‘Dream Attic’ is one of the best guitar based albums of the last five years or so. If only the songs were better, it would stand up as one of his very finest efforts ever. I’m still struggling with this one. Give ‘Dream Attic’ a listen for yourself and make up your own mind. I’d love to know what you think.
This article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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