When I interviewed Richard Thompson a few years ago, it was generally agreed between us that he doesn’t do fluffy. Love, he suggested, is bitter, hard, and often painful. Why deceive people about it? His songs have mostly reflected this. If you want happiness and stars in your eyes, RT is not your man.
So it is with 13 Rivers, Thompson’s latest album of angst. Track after track describes a world of despair, betrayal, and misunderstanding. “My name is heartbreak,” he sings in the upside-down love song “Bones of Gilead”; “O take this weight from me / And heal me from my demons,” he pleads on “My Rock, My Rope.”
But don’t take this wrong – 13 Rivers is wonderful.
As long as you can handle Thompson’s emotionally dark view of the world around him (as many have over the years) this latest offering surrounds you with fine sounds and plenty to think on. Thompson, who produced the album himself, says in the PR blurb that he sees it as a series of rivers that all flow into one current, hence the name. Well, the music certainly washes over you in a most pleasing way, even if there are times when you feel as if you are drowning.
“I often look at a finished song and wonder what the hell is going on inside me,” Thompson says. “We sequenced the weird stuff at the front of the record, and the tracks to grind your soul into submission at the back.”
The surprise for long-term fans of Thompson – an architect of 1960s British folk-rock with an honor from the queen to go with it – is that 13 Rivers is infused with fairly heavy rock – heavier even than his 2013 album Electric. There is not much folk in this folk-rock.
The very first track, “The Storm Won’t Come,” starts with a deep, almost African, drum riff as Thomson waits in vain for wind, fire, and rain to sweep away the putrefaction of life around him. “There is no storm, so I’ll make my own / Paint the walls, burn what’s rotten / Throw out the old and half-forgotten.”
Quite soon after there is a tip of the hat to heavy blues in “Her Love Was Meant For Me,” in which the singer is eaten up by dark jealousy – “Don’t need a ticket for the future / The apocalypse is free / Armageddon’s in the mirror / And her love was meant for me.”
Meanwhile, arguably the lightest song musically on 13 Rivers is one of the angriest. “You Can’t Reach Me” comes across as almost 1960s pop until you focus on lyrics like “Don’t give me that innocent stuff / Don’t give me that line / There’s guilt in everything you do / You’re guilty all the time.”
Thompson, of course, is not just about the lyrics of torment. He is also one of the world’s most accomplished guitarists (ranking between Jack White and John McLaughlin on Rolling Stone’s 100 best guitarists of all time, for what that is worth). It shows here wonderfully.
There is even something approaching a rock anthem, “The Rattle Within,” where Thompson wails away on his guitar as he sings of the inner demons that haunt him.
Every song on 13 Rivers is infused with superb guitar from heavy blues licks to light picking. It's Thompson at his absolute best. It’s almost as if he was happy.