Word Unspoken

Photo by Beth Herzhaft

A few years ago I ran into a writer I hadn’t seen for a long time browsing the used bins of Aron’s Records. He was stocking up on, oh, I don’t know what — jazz probably, rare Dylan, maybe even a little Aphex Twin or vintage Public Enemy. I had in my fist a clutch of Richard Thompson CDs — a movie score he’d done that I hadn’t known about, a copy of Henry the Human Fly that was less scratched than the one on my shelf at home, a used Amnesia, which I had only on vinyl. Feeling moribund in my predictable selections, I tried to conceal them by my side — which only made them more conspicuous. “It’s okay,” the writer assured me. “We call that ‘resigning yourself to your own taste.’”

These days, I prefer to call it reveling. My guilty pleasure — my fixation on an eccentric songwriter I once adored with the sense of shame with which some others love Neil Diamond or Gordon Lightfoot — has been vindicated by time, integrity, and a new record on Cooking Vinyl (home of Billy Bragg), Old Kit Bag, in which Thompson himself revels in his own taste. Free of the record-company aesthetic that wants a good pop hook more than it wants made-up love stories to chromatic progressions or Celtic flourishes, Thompson has, with producer John Chelew, longtime collaborator and bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Michael Jerome, made a record that sounds exuberantly his own. Gone is the unsettled character of Mock Tudor, Thompson’s last record for Capitol, whose every track sounded shoehorned into a slicker package; there’s none of the fanfare here of You? Me? Us? — a record full of lasting tunes marred only by its self-conscious effort to be epic. Old Kit Bag is the idiosyncratic celebration of a balladeer cut loose to express his innermost ideas about music and poetry. Not everyone will like it; fewer people will review it, probably, than paid attention to Mock Tudor. But it is, nevertheless, an eloquent testament to the gifts of a philosopher who has improved considerably with age.

I have reflected in the last few days, listening to Old Kit Bag, on how rewarding it is to be a lifelong fan. Walking around craving another listen of “Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen,” a song about being renewed by romance, or “Outside of the Inside,” a bitter denunciation of fundamentalist faith (“God never listened to Charlie Parker,” it begins), I realized that being a fan is like being in love — a delicate balance you can’t always control. I’m grateful now that Thompson, unlike Bonnie Raitt, Dylan, David Byrne or any of the other singer-songwriters I obsessed over in the ’70s, has never become commercially successful enough to fall prey to what one friend of mine calls “Bruce Springsteen syndrome.” In other words, his spell has never been broken by popularity; frat boys have never discovered him; mainstream radio never overplayed him. KCRW DJ Chris Douridas came close to ruining Thompson’s mystique with a fawning interview in 1996, which meant it was years before I could hear “Razor Dance” without thinking of Thompson’s in-studio appearance. I risked ruining it myself by conducting my own fawning interview a few years later.

It was a useless interview. There was nothing I wanted to know that I didn’t already, and nothing he wanted to tell me: His major-label days were almost over, and all the clichés applied. I had heard he didn’t like journalists and critics, and that he could be mean. Instead, Thomspon was kind, gracious, and forthcoming enough to make me comfortable, but never familiar. His wife, Nancy Covey, stopped by to discuss the details of having Loudon over for dinner, and I recognized a flicker of vulnerability when he talked admiringly about Wainwright’s songwriting. Other than that, he did me the favor of remaining a rock star.

In advance of the release of Old Kit Bag, I went to see Thompson at Largo, where he was giving a small concert for his affirmed fans and members of the press. It was a short show, only seven songs or so, and not particularly inspiring by Thompson’s standards — he has, after all, won most of his obsessive fans with the force of his solo shows. Matt Groening was there, as was Harry Shearer, who seems to be everywhere Thompson goes, especially now that his wife, Judith Owen, is adding lilting descants to Thompson’s songs. And it was clear that for all the hardened enthusiasm in the audience, Thompson would never again let his artistic choices be influenced by pop music’s fickleness. “Every time I went into the studio to record a new album,” he told us, “there was somebody in the audience — A&R man, marketing director, somebody — who would say, ‘Now, that’s the hit.’” He then played a song from Old Kit Bag that pandered to no one and, truth be told, had little chance of appealing to the masses. I applauded devotedly.

Richard Thompson performs at House of Blues on Friday, May 16.

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