by Noah Kucij
You may have heard something by Richard Thompson, or you may just have heard something about Richard Thompson: songwriter’s songwriter, guitar geek’s darling, balls-to-the-wall live performer, daring interpreter who’ll slide from Prince’s “Kiss” into an 11th-century English peasant dance. Maybe none of that moved you, or the music you heard came across as too singer-songwriter, too cerebral, too British, too NPR.
Or maybe it just doesn’t ring a bell. But then it’s only a matter of time before you’re snooping around the Rock History annals, and you hear praises sung for a certain LP from 1974. Thompson had emerged in the early ‘70s as the noted guitarist of Brit-folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention; released one historically awful-selling solo effort called Henry the Human Fly; and then married a backup singer named Linda Peters. In ‘74, Richard and Linda Thompson released their honeymoon album, I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight. The album has garnered a nosebleed seat in Rolling Stone’s top-500, and often the “masterpiece” mantel is flung its way by turtle-necked, record-alphabetizing weenies like me. And then, because the Rock History annals are vast, you’re supposed to basically skip ahead to 1980 for the struggling couple’s last gasp, Shoot Out the Lights.
But then you would miss one of the most quietly remarkable albums Thompson or anyone ever made: Pour Down Like Silver. It’s Island, 1975, so picture Nick Drake, Bob Marley, and the guy from Jethro Tull at adjacent urinals. Yet for all that such a milieu promises, this album’s general reception amounts to not much more than a footnote and a golf-clap. Kurt Loder, while breathlessly admiring the Thompsons in a 1984 review, commented that Pour Down Like Silver “seems merely excellent when compared to Bright Lights.” And Linda Thompson herself said of these songs that “considering they’re all about God some of them aren’t bad.”
Oh right, I forgot to mention: Pour Down Like Silver is best known as the music Richard and Linda made amid their conversion to Sufi Islam, after which they moved onto a commune in East Anglia and all but dropped out of the biz for some years. The Thompsons’ newfound “teacher” had been urging Richard to give up playing electric guitar. This album was cut as RT wrung his hands over this imminent sacrifice, and he plays his axe with all the passion of a sinner about to go straight – like, first thing tomorrow morning. (Luckily the cure didn’t take: Thompson continued to wail on guitars of all amperage throughout his career.)
The lyrics are equally charged with the excited uncertainty of the phase. These aren’t dogmatic songs glazed over with newfound belief. There’s nothing in the universe worse than Christian Rock, so you might be smart to guess that Muslim Rock must be pretty vapid as well. But here, it’s quite the opposite. Thompson, like a few English poets before him (John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cat Stevens…), found a way to turn the agony and the ecstasy of religious hide-and-seek into high art – art that plays as well to non-believers as to the devout. Every love song on this album is a hymn to the Great Spirit, and vice versa. Richard and Linda switch off on impassioned lead vocals, the latter with heartbroken gorgeousness on “For Shame of Doing Wrong”:
I’m sorry for the things I’ve said, things I’ve done
I’m sorry for the restless thief I am
Please don’t make me pay for my deceiving heart
Just turn on your lamp and let me in
And then there’s the transcendent electric dirge “Night Comes In,” often cited as RT’s great paean to his new faith, but listen:
O the songs pour down like silver
They can only break my heart
Drink the wine, the wine of lovers
Lovers tired of being apart
Dancing till my feet don’t touch the ground
I’ll lose my mind and dance forever…
Turn my world around…
Is Linda in “For Shame” singing to the long-sought God or the wronged lover? Is Richard in “Night Comes In” evoking the Sufi tradition of whirling in ecstatic communion with the One? Or is he inspired by wide-eyed sexual giddiness and the Dionysian pleasure of rock and roll? The genius of this album is that none of those either-or questions make sense in its awesome presence. “All loves are a bridge to Divine love,” wrote the Sufi mystic poet Rumi. And only about 700 years later, fellow supplicants Richard and Linda put that insight to music.
And if that’s all a bit too much voodoo, there are plenty more secular reasons to love this album – I daresay it trumps the more popular Bright Lights in almost every way. On that record, there are a lot of choruses plummeting to real bummer keys and refrains like “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow / There’s nothing to grow up for anymore” – or elsewhere, and more to the point, “My dreams have withered and died.” Somebody shoot me. The lyrics on Silver, though, shimmer and crackle with metaphorical richness and wit. The Dylanesque dis-song “Hard Luck Stories” quips, “You still come around cause I used to listen, / But I run a steamship, I don’t run a mission.” The opener “Streets of Paradise” is a rollicking anthem to that elusive Thou we seek in a bottle, a bed, or a mosque. The closer “Dimming of the Day” is an all-time tear-jerker (who knew it was about Allah?), and “The Poor Boy is Taken Away” is an archetypally perfect four verses of sublimated anguish. Not to mention that the music is tighter here, and the vocals are better – where earlier Richard could sound like a Monty Python trouper, full of piss and malt vinegar but just a touch tinny, the RT of late 1975 sounds fortified with a whole new element. And Linda’s voice has shed all the theatrics that make some early folk-rock sound like a field trip to Ye Olde Village; on Silver, she sounds fully present in every note.
So if you’re not a Richard Thompson fan yet, burn, buy or steal a copy of Pour Down Like Silver. It’s dripping with the sweat of a man who’s been rowing towards God. And, thank heaven, it’s got electric guitar.