Richard Thompson is Britain's answer to Neil Young, an uncompromising guitar virtuoso whose often stridently political songwriting is indelibly influenced by his country's folk music. Like Young, Thompson is refusing to go gentle into that good night. At the venerable age of sixty-one, he has written and recorded an album of new material which is as strong and compelling as much of his earlier work.
Much has been made of the 'risky' and 'experimental' nature of Dream Attic. At this point, luckily, we can abandon the Young comparison: Thompson has not recorded something akin to the Canadian's ill-fated dabblings in krautrock beats and synthesisers, the period that saw his record label sue him for failing to sound like himself. Thompson's music has not changed substantially; it is just his method of capturing it that has altered. Rather than recording the songs that make up Dream Attic in a studio, Thompson went on the road with a four-piece band and played them live. This is not a conventional live album, however. All stage banter has been edited out, and the audience can only sporadically be heard applauding. As a result it is easy to forget that the band are playing live, especially as the playing is largely note-perfect. Nobody should approach this album expecting the sort of ragged excitement and sense of occasion generated by many band's live recordings. On the other hand, many of the songs here are imbued with a dynamism and energy that it may not have been possible to replicate in the studio.
Dream Attic is at his best when Thompson is at his angriest. 'Money Shuffle''s withering lyrical assault on the fat cats responsible for the current recession ('If you'll just bend over a little/You'll feel my financial muscle') is accompanied by an equally furious guitar solo. The sprightly fiddle-fest 'Geordie Wells' attacks a rich, hypocritical, self righteous star who 'chopped down a forest just to save a tree'. Thompson has had to deny that the geordie in question is Sting. Elsewhere, the mood ranges from funereal (bleak ballad 'A Brother Slips Away') to positively jolly (the chugging folk-pop of 'Haul Me Up'). Regardless of these variations in mood and style, there is one constant throughout the album, the vibrancy and invention of Thompson's guitar-playing. Searing, free-wheeling solos cap many of the songs. On the brilliant Crimescene, which combines introspective lyrics and extrovert playing, the piercing, dramatic solo creates an atmosphere reminiscent of Young's finest work. Yet whereas Young sells millions, Thompson has always languished in relative obscurity. With any luck this record, which consistently finds him on top form, will change that.
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