I just got a hold of Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music, and I’m delighted about it. I’m pleased partly because I think it’s great stuff–a genuinely interesting recording and a fun listen–partly because it has sparked a couple of ideas for a paper I’m working on on covers, and partly because it helped me understand something about my gut reaction to Richard Thompson.
Since I managed to show my misogynistic side with my last post in which I copped to not liking Madonna, I’m going to do my best to show that I’m a philistine in this one by saying that I can’t get into Richard Thompson. I respect him, lord knows. His work with Fairport Convention is some classic folk rock, I can think of any number of reasons to say that his song writing is compelling, smart, clever, thought-provoking, and he’s an engaging performer. But for all that, I own some of his recordings, but never listen to them. Even Shoot Out the Lights, which is acknowledged as a great work, and seems to chronicle the ugly end of his marriage to Linda Thompson–and really, what makes for better rock than alienation, anger, and bitterness; the album is impressive, but I don’t listen to it.
I first heard bits of the 1000 Years project seven years ago or so, when Thompson was touring it and did an interview on Fresh Air on NPR. The interview with Terri Gross was nice, and I remember thinking two things: first, the concept was excellent, and second, that his performance of “Oops, I Did it Again” was brilliant. The concept, as I recall, was that he had been asked to provide a list for some magazine’s countdown of the best popular music of the millennium (remember, it was Y2K and all). Thompson, irritated that the other lists were essentially countdowns of the best pop songs of the 20th century, or even of the last 50 years, decided to go back and attempt a list, starting in A.D. 1000, with “Sumer is Icumen In,” and hitting the (mostly Anglo/American) highlights from there on. I love the implications, the sense that Thompson’s list is all about sticking it to the man–challenging the basic discursive structure that says that the only music that counts is music that the industry has taken note of since the advent of recording technology. It’s the sort of hipster/academic stance that makes me respect and admire Thompson; but I should say it isn’t what makes me like the album. That is, it is not a reason to listen to it.
So why do I find 1000 years of Popular Music listenable and the others not so? I think it’s that I really like Thompson’s singing and guitar playing (and, oddly, song choice), but just can’t get into his song writing. In fact, I think the album highlights exactly what’s wrong with his song writing. I realize Thompson is generally understood in exactly the opposite terms–both Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus write about him as the sort of performer whose performing is at best there to highlight his songs. But to me his songs–the lyrics, specifically–are always just short of making it. Like Randy Newman, who I also respect but almost never listen to, Thompson seems to have found the place where pop songs fail because they are ever so slightly too smart, too ironic, too heady. “Don’t Renege on our Love” the first track on Shoot Out the Lights is a perfect case. “Don’t renege on our love!,” Thompson cries over and over and over; but by the second time he says it I’m already cringing. It seems possible that the word “renege” can not be used in any pop song, but definitely not this sort. Who, when mourning a passing relationship–a marriage, a long affair, hell, even a brief encounter–thinks “why is she reneging“? Thompson’s biggest hit (as far as I know), the iconic “1952 Vincent Black Lightening” is equally problematic. I ‘get’ it–it’s a new ballad, a genre piece, writing in the form but updating, making it relevant in sound and topic–but it’s just too smart for me. The experience of ‘getting’ it gets in the way of enjoying it.
But I love to hear Thompson singing “Oops, I Did It Again,” finding the dark quality underneath B. Spears’s giggle, or singing “Tempted,” or “Java Jive.” The best part is that he sings the songs just like I would/do. There’s not much attempt to re-create the original recoridngs, but instead he really treats them as songs, singing them totally straight-forwardly, with fairly bare accompaniments and his reedy, gravelly voice, a voice I can identify with and spin my imagination around.
All of this critique should be read in relation to a generalized discomfort on my part with the whole “folk revival” scene. This is the music I grew up with, more than any other–that is, the music of my early childhood–and it is the music I most associate with my dad. We went to folk festivals together, to renaissance fairs, sang sea chanties in the hold of a 19th century ship harbored in SF, and listened to Joan Baez, Brian Bowers, and The Boys of the Lough on tapes in endless drives in the Northern California country side. So now I appreciate lots of things about the music, but am also unable to embrace it whole-heartedly. I see the good things about the best of it, but also its shortcomings. I love plenty of things, for instance, about Joni Mitchell, but the obvious, extended metaphor in “Both Sides Now” is not one of them; nor is the prosaic wordiness of “Big Yellow Taxi” (i.e., “Paved Paradise”)
I should add one further thought about Thompson, and that is that I really love him in concert. I’ve only seen him once, at the Strawberry Music Festival quite some time ago, and I found him totally engaging. He sold the songs in stories and stage manner, and had just the right energy. I worry that what this really means is that I find his music hard to listen to because it is music that requires my attention to enjoy. So much of my listening time is spent half-listening, and perhaps the real problem is that I can’t half-listen to his stuff. But I think the answer is that the songs need his stage presence, and at least for me, lie a little flat in the recording.