He's already achieved more as a songwriter and instrumentalist than most musicians could do in a lifetime. His sound is familiar, with ties to practically every Western genre and many that lie beyond our horizons, yet also unlike anything else you've ever heard. His colleagues, ranging back to Jimi Hendrix and up to today's young giants, unify through time in admiration of his accomplishments.
So it is hardly surprising that Richard Thompson, nonpareil guitarist and perceptive observer of life's persistent ironies, has produced another masterpiece - The Old Kit Bag, scheduled for release in Spring of 2003 by Cooking Vinyl / iMUSIC.
What's perhaps most remarkable about this album - by one reckoning, his twenty-fifth, without even counting the six he recorded as a member of Fairport Convention - is its distillation of all that precedes it in his catalog. For more than thirty years Richard Thompson has grown as an artist by carefully paring his work down to its essence. As a culmination of this process, Kit Bag, recorded in spare trio format with minimal overdubs, is a textbook lesson on how to convey layers of meaning with minimal gestures.
More than that, and more to the point, it's an offering to listeners who appreciate music that's rich on substance and stripped of glitz. The Old Kit Bag opens like a pocketbook filled with gems: images of innocence lost among tombstones on Gethsemane, of distant love remembered on A Love You Can't Survive, and demons unleashed by ignorance on Outside of the Inside, and lyrics - war whoops and secrets under the trees, estuary smells coming up on the breeze, perfect, endless days like these - that glitter and spill like diamonds over velvet.
Taken as a whole, The Old Kit Bag is a jumble of brilliant bits written over the past two years. When asked if a central theme ties them all together, Thompson seems nonplussed. Um … no, he admits. Then, helpful gentleman that he is, he adds, I suppose the title is a theme of sorts. It's a reference to the old World War I song, 'Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,' which is about smiling and whistling a happy tune as the Germans rain shells down on you.
Admittedly, this is a stretch. But there is a musical continuity to Kit Bag, in the eloquent interplay between Thompson's vocals and string parts, the acoustic bass lines of Danny Thompson, and the drumming of Michael Jerome. (Singer Judith Owen, who guested on Thompson's previous album, Mock Tudor, contributes backup harmonies on several tracks.) The idea was to keep it small, Thompson explains. I did do a few overdubs -- second guitar, dulcimer, single-finger keyboard parts, all the easy stuff -- but other than that, everything was pretty much a live performance.
The result is an intimate, smoky quality from which each story slowly unfolds. Producer John Chelew (John Hiatt, Norma Waterson, Five Blind Boys of Alabama), a master of bringing out the narrative in excellent songs, found the balance between clarity and atmosphere on these tracks, making The Old Kit Bag a standout even in Thompson's imposing discography.
Thompson's sensitivities were evident as far back as the '60s. Even then, in his father's Fats Waller albums, in early hints of Middle Eastern music and the first washes of psychedelic rock washing over from the New World, Thompson recognized something universal and wondered why no one else could hear how it all might fit together.
I've always had a problem, growing up in London around a British folk tradition but also listening to rock and roll and not finding anyone who was playing the music I really wanted to hear, he says. Really, what I wanted to hear didn't exist, so it was necessary for me to go out and create it.
The mission began at age 17, when Thompson co-founded Fairport Convention, the seminal folk-rock band whose significance only grows more apparent with time. In 1968 they recorded their eponymous debut, whose fusion of folk elements with rock energy inspired a generation of British musicians in a manner often compared to that of the Band in North America. After just two years, however, Thompson left to begin the journey he continues to this day, as a solo artist in pursuit of his own unique insights.
With The Old Kit Bag, the time may have finally arrived for Thompson to receive that same level of recognition from the public at large. The major labels have been concentrating almost exclusively on Top 40, he muses, but now they're in crisis. The industry is changing. Different strata are appearing. Slowly but surely, audiences will find it easier to find the music they really want to hear.
For many, that search will lead them to The Old Kit Bag and, through it, to Richard Thompson, whose own quest for excellence is long underway and yet far from over.