Into a heart of darkness

By Paul Rigg

Richard Thompson is an amazing guitarist and a highly talented songwriter but, let’s say, he is not the cheeriest of souls.  

However if dark is your thing, you can find it hear in spades. And fortunately, while Thompson does not quite have the wit of Tom Waits, he does have sarcasm and a unique style that lifts his songs far above the common. When you listen to Richard Thompson, you know you are listening to something extraordinary.

The British folk legend is now nearly 70 but he still seems as strong and determined as ever. His latest album, 13 Rivers, contains 13 tracks that snake eerily and menacingly through the jungle like the river on Apocalypse Now, with lyrics lurking beneath that feel sharp enough to jump out and bite.
“These songs,” he says, “were a surprise... they came to me at a dark time.”

On this self-produced analogue album, Thompson collaborates again with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, along with guitarist Bobby Eichorn, to produce a raw and confident sound.

The album kicks off with the ominous The Storm Won’t Come, which finds Thompson seemingly pleading for a biblical type Flood to wash away all the chaos and sin of the world. “There’s a smell of death where I lay my head … I’m longing for the storm, but the storm won’t come” he sings, before the song builds to a climax in which, perhaps, the ‘musical rain’ finally pours down.

Things don’t get much lighter with The Rattle Within, where Thompson asks “
Just when you think your horse is a runnin’, just when you think you’re fixin’ to win, there’s a wonderin’ deep inside you, Who’s going to save you from the rattle within?”. Some kind of a response comes with an arrestingly dark guitar solo on his red '59 Stratocaster, which is almost punk in its intention.

O Cinderella
provides one of the few moments of respite because of the fun and lusty humour of lines like “I’m not very house-trained, it’s true, But I want to make cupcakes with you.” The calm does not last long though, because it is followed by No Matter, where Thompson talks about ‘contemplating suicide before the tide has turned’. Perhaps there is a dark link here to the outstanding ballad My Rock, My Rope where he sings “In my pain, In my darkness, Is my comfort, And hope; In my loss, In my sorrow, Is my rock, Is my rope.” There seems no other way to interpret ‘comfort’ here in any other way than the type that Ian Curtis sought.

Bones of Gilead,
on the other hand, sees Thompson making guitar magic on what looks like his acoustic Lowden L32C. It’s still dark and intense but it is also edgy, mysterious and exciting.

Another great track on the album is the closer, Shaking the Gates, where he sings “I’m shaking, I’m shaking…I’m shaking the gates”, presumably referring to the gates of heaven. It is a mellow sounding track, which might even offer an upbeat note to end on, because of lines like
“If angels are real, then who needs dreams?”

In sum, 13 Rivers is another strong multi-faceted record from the enormously talented folk guitar god. It is dark and twisted but also gentle and wry in moments, and in this way seems to reflect the torment going on within the man himself. “I often … wonder what the hell is going on inside me,” he says of the album.