RICHARD THOMPSON TURNED 50 this year. The guitarist/songwriter has been fusing British folk traditions with effusive rock 'n' roll for 30 years, first with the Fairport Convention, then with his (now ex-) wife Linda, and for the past 20 years as a solo artist. Yet he sounds freshly energized on his current album, Mock Tudor (Capitol).
Capitol Theater in Olympia, September 17
King Cat Theater, September 18—sold out
"I get told that I'm stagnant and out of ideas by some people," he relates on the phone from London. "I try to think of music as being experimental, as being a journey [where] you don't know what's at the end."
That may be why Thompson took two stylistic risks with Mock Tudor—one of which involved trying out the potentially dangerous concept album idea, the other jettisoning a longtime collaborator.
For a theme, Thompson chose to study his hometown of London, past and present, and it gives the album a sense of cohesion largely missing from 1996's sprawling two-disc set you? me? us?. "It was a theme [around which] I'd collected a couple of songs," he says. "I had a couple of ideas reserved in a corner, amongst others, so it just seemed like it would be a good focus at that time. And it proved very easy to write along a theme."
The songs are brought to life by Thompson's emotion-fueled vocals; his heady electric guitar solos, which have the potency of Tom Verlaine on tracks like "Hard on Me"; and his captivating characters. "I don't think they're made up," he says of the gangsters, hookers, and beguiling lovers populating the songs. "They're probably slightly fictionalized, but they're generally based on real people."
Although Mock Tudor is about London, it was written anywhere but England's capital city. "It doesn't make any difference, really," Thompson says of the geographical location from which he's approaching his subject matter. "Sometimes it is good to be further away from something in order to get some perspective. I'm not sure if it made any difference. In fact, I probably wrote it in various places around the world at various times. I've been trying to train myself not to be so precious about where I am, to just sit on the train or the bus and write." So now that he's successfully tackled the theme album, does Thompson have any ideas for future topic-based projects? "Oh, I can't tell you! I've got various projects in mind for records, but it's a matter of which is the right one for the right time. There's the one about the Muppets," he jokes, "and there's a musical about Deep Throat."
WHILE THOMPSON is evasive about his future endeavors, he's more forthcoming on the subject of his finished albums. He's got plenty to say about the second big change he made for Mock Tudor—switching from trusty producer Mitchell Froom, who's worked magic with Los Lobos and Suzanne Vega and on most of Thompson's albums this decade (including the stellar Rumor and Sigh from 1991) to Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, best known for their work with Beck and Elliott Smith. "I think it was time for a change. It was probably overdue, really," admits Thompson. "I enjoy the records that Mitchell makes, I'm a real fan of his work. But it was time to have some different personalities in the team. And it was great fun to find Tom and Rob because they really are terrific people, and also very skillful. And I think it was a very different kind of record."
In fact, it's more along the lines of Smith's XO in that the songs take center stage, the production bypassing lush or grandiose sound in favor of simple arrangements that spotlight the highly crafted melodies. "I think it sounds different, and I'm not sure why that is," Thompson reflects. "Whatever they brought to bear on the record, it's taken it into a slightly different area. It's an even more straight-ahead recording. And I think that's really because the songs demanded something fairly straightforward. And then having recorded it, there wasn't much else to do with it. It sounds better pretty much as it was done."
Mock Tudor ranks with his best work, but he's not one to rest on his laurels. His lengthy career, filled with soaring highs and a few flat lows, attests to that. "As a musician," says Thompson, "it's your duty to explore and see what's out there. And sometimes you don't make it. You fall flat on your face. But that's OK in the context of what you're trying to do. So it's good to not play it safe, to take chances, to stretch your technique and ideas, and see where it goes. Some nights it works and some nights it doesn't. But you have to go down trying."