Let’s play the old word game. Album titles, when they’re not hewing to nonsense or convenience or otherwise platitudinizing, tend to either 1) make an attempt at the reader’s attention or 2) elaborate on their work’s thematic significance. In my experience, works can belong more tellingly to their titles than titles belong to the works.
That brings me to Richard Thompson’s new album, Still. I’ve made the point before, but it’s a useful construction. A title like Still is redolent of stasis, implying a loss or lack of momentum. The fast car braked and was still at the precipice… the cat kept utterly still in the bushes. “Still” denotes being, but not just passive being. In the case of Thompson, it’s active. Still is an announcement to listeners that Thompson is Still, well, Thompson.
Long time fans know this of course. The guitarist-cum-songwriter-cum-singer (demiurge-cum-maestro-cum-emoter) has almost 50 years of experience at this point plying his trade. Astoundingly subtle guitar work that puts most leaders to shame. A rich songbook whose entries have been covered by countless artists. Can turn on a dime from delicate folk to rock furor. Honored in his native British Commonwealth, he’s never been a major star, but reputation-wise, he’s first class.
So it’s no real surprise that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame sat in as Still’s producer—it’s no secret Tweedy likes to honor his heroes.
Thompson, of course, loves to honor heroes too; the finale is called “Guitar Heroes,” for chrissakes, wherein Thompson pays homage to some of his faves in a seven-and-a-half minute ramble tamble that assumes the voice of a luckless teenager (a little autobio from Thompson, hopefully) trying to get Les Paul’s tone right so he can win the girl and prove his parents wrong on the whole “rock ’n’ roll” thing.
Charming fact or charming lie, “Guitar Heroes” underlies Still’s theme as a whole: that the essence of hero worship is sempiternal; it works best when it isn’t maudlin or swaddled in cognitive clutter.
Unlike some of Thompson’s other producers, like Joe Boyd or Mitchell Froom, Tweedy doesn’t orchestrate a medium for the music to move through. Still is spacious-sounding and matches the personality of Thompson with the impersonality of his oeuvre.
Meaning: Thompson qua institution is as much on parade as Thompson qua Thompson on Still.
The album’s full of Thompson’s classic considerations. “Long John Silver” and “Beatnik Walking” are the idiosyncratic story songs. There are the beautifully melded folk-rockers: “Pony in the Stable,” “Broken Doll,” “No Peace, No End.” “All Buttoned Up” is all tasty guitar and sexual deprivation. Joining the ranks of Gethsemane and Valerie is the lovely lass “Josephine.”
For old fans there’s not gonna be anything new here. The distinct edge Still has over Thompson’s recent solo work, however, is the heightened chance it might draw in new converts. Thompson didn’t need Tweedy’s endorsement, but a little love never hurts in this sort of situation.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and nothing’s been as constant as Richard Thompson. Decades of output still find Thompson churning out whit-drenched lyrics and razor sharp guitars, giving Americana fans one of their few guarantees: while new folks go pop and old folks go Sinatra, there’s always Richard Thompson; always a wry lyricist and folk stomper to rest your laurels on.
That consistence is the core of Still, the latest from the British troubadour. Thompson is still throwing around devil picked guitar lines. Thompson is still weaving us the nuances of the heartbroken. Thompson still swings a musical gauntlet between folk, country, rock and jazz. There’s nothing new on Still, for the respective fields or even for Thompson, but that’s not exactly a bad thing – we still get a competent album of guitar cracks and well-crafted beggars.
At 66, Thompson still feels very alive. Behind the soundboard, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy keeps everything barebones, letting Thompson lead his album like he would in concert. When he springs through Chuck Berry and Django Reinhardt in “Guitar Heroes,” it’s an organic leap, just as the country thunder of “No Peace, No End” rumbles with presence. Only when it’s slowed to a folkloric crawl, like opener “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” does Still‘s immediacy really fade.
In some places on Still, Thompson does succumb to a worn-down feeling. A few tracks, like the “she done me wrong”-isms of “Patty Don’t You Put Me Down” and the progressive folk waltz of “Broken Doll” don’t ring like more potent counterparts (though “Broken Doll’s” lyrics might be some of Still’s best – a “November Rain” sympathizer with adolescent confusion). And then there’s the dated “All Buttoned Up,” a male gaze dirge about a woman “keeping her legs together” that leaves a bad taste whenever you dig below its smooth seaport rockabilly.
Yet Still finds redemption in some of its more exuberant moments. Country skronk finds a hero in the swashbuckling shanty “Long John Silver.” There’s a jaunty folk tale in the warm “Beatnik Walking,” and “Dungeons for Eyes” rolls into an enjoyable climax. Even Still’s weakest moments flaunt Thompson’s addictive guitar prowess, culminating in the tribute collage “Guitar Heroes” – Thompson’s excuse to style-check a who’s-who of guitar gods before topping it off with his own grand finale.
So Thompson plays his cards straight, throwing down just enough to keep the game going without shocking anyone into folding. Still is Thompson doing Thompson, spinning yarns and ripping solos as he is wont to do. A few missteps aside, Still is a comfortable album, with moments that kick and sway; moments that give off a reviving energy like a guitar-slinging Lazarus. If there’s any real takeaway from Still, it’s the knowledge that, as the landscapes change and the tides shift, there’s still a legend strumming true; still a Richard Thompson bringing it all back home.
Still is out now courtesy of Fantasy Records and Proper Records.