Wearing his maturity boldly on his sleeve, Richard Thompson’s bold new album, 13 Rivers on New West, opens with “The Storm Won’t Come” a Bo Diddley-inspired riff with calls for a tempest to wash away his angst. The tune is an ominous sign that draws us into a collection of some of his most introspective work. Thompson turned 69 last April and up to now, I wouldn't have really noticed it as much as he has, but when one looks in the mirror, as I have since I turned 60 in July, I can see that I’ve entered a new phase in my life: I’m no longer young, but not yet old. Consequently I found it comforting that he’s still coming to terms with his maturing as an artist, “I don’t know how the creative process works - I suppose it is some kind of bizarre parallel existence to my own life. I often look at a finished song and wonder what the hell is going on inside me.” This new album of songs is his response.
Thompson deals with his personal demons with “The Rattle Within”. On this track he sings in the third person as an observer. If “Holy Men”, “Voodoo” and “Jesus” are applicable for some answers, the inner voice is still the most powerful, “a man’s made of muscle and he’s going to wrestle…save me, save me, save me from the Rattle Within.” Clearly Thompson is ready for a fight, which brings us to track three.
“Her Love was meant for me” one of the heaviest songs on 13 Rivers. It’s a pseudo-love song that’s really about a Gypsy girl whose love is compared to “a laser through a scarecrow”. Thompson’s dark humour is in full force as he admits, “Armageddon's in the mirror, her love was meant for me.” It’s a tough image staring back at Thompson, but as the album continues he seems comfortable in his own skin.
It’s remarkable how therapeutic Thompson’s songs can be when he puts pen to paper. I was recently revisiting his angry, unsympathetic song “Tear Stained Letter” from Hand of Kindness (Ryko) released in 1983. Thompson’s songs, while probably not of his own memoir, certainly feel that way. On this album, the best example is “Bones of Gilead” that uses the Biblical reference in a larger context, as Thompson ruminates on God, faith and his place in the natural world. Perhaps these songs are “parallel” to his life or like Dante’s Inferno a journey to some divine revelation.
13 Rivers is not an acoustic record, but it has a strong Mississippi-Delta feel about it and I can't think of a better song that engages me as well as
anything by Lighting Hopkins or John Lee Hooker. “The Dog in You” is a scathing review of a dysfunctional relationship where the protagonist requires high maintenance. It’s spirit and themes feel rooted in American Blues.
By the sixth track, “Trying”, Thompson accepts full responsibility for his failures. “I thought I was strong...you shake me till I don't know right from wrong.” He responds, “I'm only trying to be true to myself”. Thompson is feeling the effects of the proverbial storm he didn’t think would come.
Nevertheless 13 Rivers is not all doom and gloom. The album has a discernible shift by the time we hear the sweet lament “My Rock, My Rope” the most emotionally charged song in the Thompson catalogue. I try not to take Thompson’s songs too seriously yet I can’t hide from their profundity. As he admits on the New West label website, “We sequenced the weird stuff at the front of the record, and the tracks to grind your soul into submission at the back.”
If that’s the case then the brightest track, “O Cinderella” is dripping with sarcasm. The character of Prince Charming isn’t so enamoured with his fairy-tale sweetheart. Thompson sings “O Cinderella, I’m not very housed trained it’s true, but I want to dust cobwebs with you.” Thompson hasn't lost any of his wryness over the years, but perhaps it’s not as pointed as it used to be which could be a sign of his cynicism weakening with age. I’m not sure if that’s cause for concern or celebration. This is Thompson’s 23rd studio album and it’s one of his very best in concept and execution. The band kicks on every track while Thompson’s superb guitar playing, although subdued in the mix, resonates through the whole album.
With the release of 13 Rivers, (New West) Thompson is a lot closer to understanding his aging existence. As he closes out the record, he gently sings, “I'm shaking the Gates of Hell”. Perhaps he’s moving into a more mature version of himself. It’s certainly a worthy and honourable goal.