The cover of Richard Thompson’s latest CD is no accident — each song on Sweet Warrior is a battle of sorts, and the vintage French photo (no, it’s not from RT’s baby book) illustrates its stark subject matter.
Sweet Warrior navigates territory as dark and familiar as RT’s trademark beret: Unrequited love (“Needle and Thread,” “Too Late to Come Fishing”); infidelity (“Johnny’s Far Away”); divorce (“Mr. Stupid”); malice (“I’ll Never Give It Up”); betrayal (“Sneaky Boy”); and death (“Poppy-Red”). Of course, you’d expect as much from a guy who released an album called Doom and Gloom from the Tomb.
What’s unexpected, perhaps, is Thompson’s newfound knack for bold social commentary; when the metaphorical well runs dry, he chooses battles straight from the headlines. Undoubtedly, the album’s flashpoint is the searing “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” — an unusually frank indictment of the Iraq war. Though it has a few clumsy lines (It’s someone’s mess I didn’t choose / At least we’re winning on the Fox Evening News), it’s a sincere position statement which has already earned responses ranging from “It’s about time…” to “How dare you…”
Another war-conscious song further cements Sweet Warrior’s theme: The ambitious “Guns Are the Tongues” is an epic ballad in the tragic mold of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” This new classic builds to an emotional peak and ultimately resolves into a sublime guitar solo that I wish would go on forever. It neatly captures the album’s essence in its recurring couplet: Guns are the tongues, Little Joe / The only words we know.
As with all RT records, there are moments of “sweet” relief. “She Sang Angels to Rest” (with a rare string arrangement) and “Take Care the Road You Choose” are the “Beeswing” and the “Waltzings for Dreamers” of the new CD, though not quite of that lofty caliber.
Musically, the songs are direct and vibrant — a refreshing counterpoint to the stern lyrics. The styles are as varied as anything since Rumour and Sigh, ranging from catchy rockers (“I’ll Never Give It Up,” “Mr. Stupid,” “Sneaky Boy,” “Bad Monkey”) to Ska (“Francesca”) to traditional Irish (“Johnny’s Far Away”) to RT’s familiar Folk brilliance (“Sunset Song”).
Thompson’s touring band lends him tight support and seamlessly blends his musical ideas. Longtime collaborator, Danny Thompson sits in on half the tracks — his walking acoustic bass on “I’ll never Give It Up” is a highlight. And, as usual, RT’s celebrated guitar playing hovers somewhere between tasteful and stunning. Check out the swirling mandolin and biting electric guitar fills on “Needle and Thread.” What a gift.
Devotees will detect a couple references to past Thompson triumphs: “Needle and Thread” sounds suspiciously like “Back Street Slide”; and “Bad Monkey’s” punchy sax riff could have been lifted straight from “Tear Stained Letter” or “Fire in the Engine Room.”
Sweet Warrior boasts at least half-a-dozen keepers and potential RT classics — a nice addition to a pretty terrific catalog. After 40 years in the biz, Richard Thompson is still a major force as a songwriter and performer.
“Needle and Thread”
“I’ll Never Give It Up”
“Guns Are the Tongues”
“Dad’s Gonna Kill Me”
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