Richard Thompson - 13 Rivers - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Richard Thompson - 13 Rivers

by Kevin Orton Rating:9 Release Date:2018-09-12
Richard Thompson - 13 Rivers
Richard Thompson - 13 Rivers

Hendrix. Clapton. Page. Thompson.

What, never heard of Richard Thompson? It’s okay, you’re not alone. But for over the last 50 years, he’s been one of Rock’s great guitar virtuosos. From his Fairport Convention days to his classics like 'Calvary Cross', he’s been dazzling audiences under the radar for decades. He may look more like your high school history professor than Keith Richard, but his guitar playing is pure wizardry in action. The Rock world was never played fair but Thompson’s managed to hang in there as a critic’s darling and a musician’s musician. In terms of being a hitmaker, perhaps it’s a question of his steadfast Englishness or the fact he isn’t afraid of throwing the furniture around in the dark. In any event, these days Richard Thompson is more famous for not being more famous.

Of course, his stellar guitar playing is only the half of it. Unlike Clapton, Thompson’s a prolifically brilliant songwriter. Witty, dark, twisted and when he wants to be, touching. In addition, he’s grown into his own as a vocalist, possessing a gruff edge that can jeer with rancor or sooth with world-weariness and compassion.

As for Thompson’s output, it’s almost predictable how reliably good his albums are. So, ho-hum here’s another good Richard Thompson album. One might even go so far as to wish he’d put out a bad one, just to break up the monotony. Subjectively speaking, I prefer some to others, but in the scheme of things I find 13 Rivers to be a strong release even by Thompson’s damnably dependable standards.

Things kick off with brooding, doomy, ‘Storm Won’t Come’. ‘Blow these old buildings down, fire to burn what fire may. Rain to wash it all away.” Yet rather than blow us away, Thompson keeps up the tension on the guitar, never quite letting all hell break loose. Suiting the action to the word. In the end, this is a song about impotence and frustration. Wishing for a downpour of biblical proportions, yet lacking the power to summon the weather to one’s bidding. Speaking of the Bible, biblical allusions abound on 13 Rivers.

The spiky ‘Rattle Within’ gallops up like a stray horse from the apocalypse. When Jesus, voodoo, and booze don’t work, “Who’s going to save you from the rattle within?” Musically, the song is faintly reminiscent of ‘MGBT’ (off 1994’s Mirror Blue) with its menacing Folk rhythms and nervy guitars.

If the first three ditties weren’t jolly enough, ‘Her Love Was Meant For Me’ has a sentiment worthy enough to wilt the darling buds of optimism: “Don’t need a ticket for the future. The apocalypse is free. Armageddon’s in the mirror.”

The driving, hypnotic ‘Bones of Gilead’ doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. A storm of neurosis is summoned offering only “heartbreak of the giving kind.” At this point, it isn’t hard to see this is quite a pissed off album. I suspect Mr. Thompson is none too happy with the sorry state of worldly affairs. While Thompson is never specific, the metaphors and allusions all point to a society going to hell in a hand-basket filled with corruption, cruelty, and hypocrisy. Everything thing is open to interpretation, but it isn’t hard to diagnose the disease. Its been with us from the beginning. The knack is finding a cure. ‘The Dog In You’ seems to take on the figurehead of this ailment. “It's not love you’re hunting down. You’re on the trail of the innocent, the frail.” Remind you of anyone? Someone who reportedly loathes canines and who’s favorite put down is, “dog”? Maybe, I’m reading too much into it. Then again, maybe, not.  

‘My Rock, My Rope,’ is the closest thing you’ll find to a love song on this long player. However, it's more a plea than ode. Elsewhere, ‘You Can’t Reach Me,’ is one of the catchiest numbers on the album. Read between the lines and it’s a satiric skewering of the religious right.

On ‘O Cinderella’, Thompson dips his pen in poison ink over a Marie Antoinette trying to pass herself off as Cinderella. “I’m not very house trained it’s true, but I want to dust cobwebs with you,” he sarcastically enthuses. Close on Cinderella’s heels is, ‘No Matter’. Chockfull of sweet nothings like, ‘contemplating suicide before the tide has turned’.

“Pride won’t let you walk away without blood on your face,” Thompson sneers on the song of the same name. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Do you feel something for the rest of humanity?” he continues. A sentiment that could extend from the personal to those steeped in nationalistic pride for personal gain.

The closer, ‘Shaking The Gates’ dials the vitriol back with the ageless query, “If angels are real, then who needs dreams?”. It’s an unexpectedly vulnerable curtain to an album calling for storms to wreak havoc, and hypocrisy to be hoisted on its own petard. Thompson may be shaking the gates of heaven, but he appears to have no intention of going gently into that good night.

True, 13 Rivers isn’t as ambitious as 2010’s Dream Attic nor tortured as his 1982 classic, Shoot Out The Lights. Yet there is much to commend it. This is a snarling, slow burn of a record. One that takes a few listens to fully bare its fangs. It’s a record that rewards with repeated listens. The surface of these winding tributaries may look like smooth sailing, but what lies beneath are indeed troubled waters. With more than a few monsters lurking below. As for Thompson being Rock’s greatest living guitarist, I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “the greatest” anything. But will point out that unlike Hendrix, he’s still alive. And unlike Page, he’s still cutting records. What’s more, he’s aging incredibly well.

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