In these angst-ridden times, it’s appropriate that Richard Thompson subtitles his first studio release in nearly four years, “Unguents, Fig Leaves and Tourniquets for the Soul.” But one can rarely take anything about Richard Thompson at face value, except for his music, so it’s best to read the ingredients on the unguent, make sure you know what’s hidden under the fig leaf, and don’t let the tourniquet get drawn too tight, for there’s little here to comfort the afflicted. Except, again, the music itself.
The overall feeling of The Old Kit Bag, in spite of the sunny “smile, smile, smile” its title conjures, is somber. It is, most of all, recognizably a Richard Thompson album. In his fifth decade of writing songs and making records, Thompson has, if not a formula, at least a recognizable set of themes and characters.
So in this kit bag we find all kinds of troubles packed. There are, as always, various tales of losers in love: the bickering couple of “Jealous Words,” who are so busy flinging those words that they don’t hear each other; there’s the clueless loser of “She Said it Was Destiny,” a companion piece of sorts to “You Dream Too Much” from 1991’s Rumor & Sigh; and the left-behind sad sack of “I’ve Got No Right to Have it All.” And there are the portraits of lonely and damaged souls: The bitter man who never met his parents’ or his own expectations in “Gethsemane”; the outsider who wants the thrill of hanging out with the wrong sort in “I’ll Tag Along”; the hardened criminal, living off the spoils of wrong-doing, but unable to forget “A Love You Can’t Survive;” and the couple falling quietly apart in the midst of a party in “Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne.”
There’s little here that reaches the heights of bitterness and abandon that first captured Thompson his rabid and loyal fans. In place of the chilling implied violence of “Shoot Out the Lights,” Thompson gives us the scathing portrait of a Taliban (or any other) fundamentalist in “Outside of the Inside.” “I’m familiar with the cover/I don’t need to read the book,” this character says, and “Shakespeare, Isaac Newton/Small ideas for little boys.” And with Thompson, it’s no surprise that the chorus of this piece is insidiously memorable: “There’s a message on the wind/Calling me to glory somewhere/There are signs too deep for the dumb/Like perfume in the air/and when I get to Heaven/I won’t realize I’m there.”
That, of course, is another bit of the Thompson magic, that ability to unite lyric and melody into something that’s as insanely catchy as it is dark or depressing. From the litany of disappointment in the verses of “Gethsemane,” with its jangly guitar arpeggios, rises the soaring admonition of the chorus, “O be something, be something fine!”
As with his choice of themes and characters, so Thompson has a number of not quite repititious but definitely recognizable musical motifs. The melody of “I’ll Tag Along” suggests an uptempo version of Rumor & Sigh‘s “Mystery Wind,” while the radio-friendly rock of “Destiny” recalls that same album’s “You Dream Too Much.” And the jaunty “I’ll Tag Along” seems to combine elements of “Walking the Long Miles Home” and “Crawl Back,” both from his previous studio release, 1999’s Mock Tudor. The Memphis-blues of “I’ve Got No Right” contains echoes of both Mirror Blue‘s “Taking My Business Elsewhere” and the Djangoesque “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven”; this one aches for a Bonnie Raitt cover.
While there’s nothing here to match the lapel-grabbing opener of Tudor‘s “Cooksferry Queen,” nearly every track has some special Thompson element — a musical or lyrical hook, an unexpected arrangement, or a spiky guitar solo. (The sole sour note is the lame riff-rocker “Pearly Jim.”) Not to be overlooked are the never-less-than-superb contributions of his three collaborators: drummer Michael Jerome, bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) and backing vocalist Judith Owen.
Thompson saves almost the best for last, with “Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne.” Underneath the surface of this glimpse of a relationship’s end lurks a typically twisted bit of Thompson commentary. The title, of course, refers to the song sung in much of the English-speaking world at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Robbie Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a song of forgetting the past and looking forward, of fond memories and pleasant expectations. The last verse, however, alludes to masks and deception, and sarcastically comments on the power of song, as this deluded lover finds mindless solace in the party ritual: “And sometimes you never connect with a song/Till it’s telling the way that you feel/Putting words to your story, all the pain and the glory/How can it be written so real…” This from the guy who has worked the Britney Spears single “Oops, I Did it Again!” into his set for the past year.
But my favorite part of The Old Kit Bag is nestled in the middle, in two tracks that continue Thompson’s tradition of writing songs that are, in the Sufi tradition, both devotionals and love songs. “One Door Opens” is a mesmerizing acoustic number, featuring RT on mandolin and dulcimer and intricate harmonies from Owen. The song has an infectious, catchy groove, somewhere between a French Renaissance dance and a qwa’ali prayer-song, and expresses a philosophy that could be from Shakespeare or Rumi: “One door opens, another shuts behind/one sun sets and another sun she rises.”
It’s followed by another bit of Rumi-esque poetry, the beautifully minimalist “First Breath,” which is a more-accessible take on the theme previously expressed on the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson song, “Bird in God’s Garden.” Anglo-American pop music has seldom seen the like of these couplets: “Old stars/New shine/Old cup/New wine,” and “Let’s love/what’s left/Last dance/First breath.” With the possible exception of “Dimming of the Day,” it’s as hopeful and uplifting a song as Richard Thompson has ever recorded.
Even more than most in Thompson’s deep and wide discography, The Old Kit Bag is the kind of work that reveals more of itself with each spin.