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Delicate phrasing, with both voice and guitar, has always made Richard Thompson a musician worth hearing — and sometimes even liking on a personal level. For a man who can make such pretty music, it's to his credit that he prefers to show his thorny, stubborn, cranky, even mean side in many of the songs in his solo career. Indeed, ever since going through a now three-decades-old divorce from Linda Thompson — after they made their masterpiece of their career, 1982's Shoot Out the Lights — Richard Thompson's songwriting has returned again and again to his, shall we say, complex relationships with women.
"Another Small Thing in Her Favour" is a lovely song about breaking up with not a little rancor. As the title makes clear, the narrator will give the woman some credit, but only grudgingly. When Thompson isn't working in peak form, this recurring theme can become tiresome. But this time around, working with producer Buddy Miller — who mostly favors spare settings for Thompson's guitar and voice — the songs on the new Electric have a crisp clarity that wrings out most of the self-righteousness. Two songs stand out in particular. The first is "Stony Ground," in which the 63-year-old Thompson imagines a codger older than himself, still feeling goatish and erotically greedy, and still getting poked in the nose for his urges. The result is what might happen if Philip Roth wrote the words for a song with roots in British folk music.
The other immediately striking song on Electric is one of its few flat-out rock songs, one that puts the electricity in the album's title. "Good Things Happen to Bad People," is another she-done-him-wrong song, but it courses with the energy of the enraged; the revulsion of a realist. Thompson belts out the chorus that good things happen to bad people even as he prays just as fervently that karma exists for revenge. Then he lets his guitar do the rest of the loud, dirty, catchy work.
"Good Things Happen to Bad People" is a good song happening to a singer-songwriter who is perpetually circling great work. And Electric is, in general, the testament of a frequently angry coot who's still coming to terms with the sources of his frustrations. Which, I hope, ought to give him material for many years to come.