Time to take arms…and so Good King Richard is back once again, dusting off the Ferrington and the Danelectro to offer his first electric album since 2003’s 'The Old Kit Bag'. Come in, the master is at work.
Aptly titled ‘Sweet Warrior’ it tackles those two perennial curses of the human condition - love and war and takes its cue from the 16th century English poet, Edmund Spenser’s sonnet LVII – ‘Sweet warrior when shall I haue peace with you?’ Spenser’s 14 lines appear inside the front cover and Thompson is pictured on the back cover, pointing the blue Danelectro at us as though it were a carbine. Some serious irony!
The track ‘Dad’ll Kill Me’ has attracted a fair amount of attention. Sung from the perspective of a GI on patrol in Iraq – Dad being shorthand for Baghdad, its corruscating lyrics pull few punches:
It’s someone else’s mess, that I didn’t choose
At least we’re winning on the Fox evening news.
But he’s not preaching here, just telling it like it is, juggling domestic expectations and concerns with the reality of being hated in a foreign land and merely trying to survive from day to day. This is followed immediately with Poppy Red, a standout track for me, again emphasising death and memorial but this time for a lost love.
Thompson is still dealing with the familiar subjects – tales of the lovelorn, cheats, fakes and victims and the spiteful little mysteries skulking behind the veneer of romance. As usual he handles it with aplomb. The opener, Needle And Thread has him on guitar and mandolin and contains some great, witty throwaway lines…
Now sweet Myfanwe she took a shine
But dumped me for Dai worked down the mine
I was a temp, Dai was a keeper
He knew how to dig that little bit deeper.
He also employs a range of styles – Johnny’s Far Away is basically a sea shanty, telling the tale of a guy playing in a ceilidh band on a cruise ship and the band sound like they’re having a blast –
Johnny’s cruising out to sea
And he believes in chastity – for some
The wealthy widows bill and coo
He fends off one or two, and then succumbs
As they’re turning hard-a-port in the Bahamas
He’s turning her right out of her pyjamas
The clever humour is a delight but it’s never smug showing off and nor is his playing. This is the work of a consummate songwriter and guitarist. He has an uncanny ability to mix the current and the arcane, remaining true to celtic traditional music but also ensuring it is absolutely of its time; at once little Englander and universal soldier. I can imagine folks at the gigs singing many of these songs as though they were 18 century drinking songs. They strike chords in people because they are well-observed and beautifully narrated and played.
The tension in the songs is provided by the angular virtuoso guitar playing. He never over eggs it. It’s that duality that keeps you on your toes throughout – devotion and bitterness, vehemence and tenderness in songs both heartening and harrowing, haunting and life affirming.
‘Too Late To Come Fishing’ is almost Americana; ‘Francesca’ is a reggae based paean to a fallen woman:
Who shook the stars from her eyes,
Who took the shine,
Made water out of wine,
And left her alone in the world.
‘Bad Monkey’ is stomping RnB with rockabilly saxophone. ‘I’ll Never Give It Up’ is a searing two step and the closer, the shimmering ‘Sunset Song’ is a tour de force featuring his trademark finger picking.
There are two excellent ballads – ‘Take Care The Road You Choose’ and the string-backed ‘She Sang Angels To Rest’.
If it had been some other place
Some other time to find me
If I had been in my right mind
Not looking for ghosts behind me
Take Care The Road You Choose
The supporting cast includes regular collaborators Danny Thompson on bass and Judith Owen on backing vocals, along with Michael Hays on guitar and Michael Jerome on drums. It also benefits from recruiting fiddle player Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek.
I am hopelessly biased of course, but it remains remarkable to me that he continues to turn out such wonderful stuff 40 years on from Fairport Convention’s first album. The production is excellent throughout and the album well paced. He’d hate anyone to suggest it but surely we can whisper the word ‘genius’. I can’t wait until the gigs in the autumn.