Good grief. I’ve had this album forever and I’ve been totally unprofessional and sat on it, and sat on it, and sat on it.
Why? Well firstly, because I had been hoping that it would be as good as ‘Semi-Detached Mock Tudor’, which is the best of the, er, two Richard Thompson albums that I own. But also because I’ve not been sure how to approach it.
The problem is that in amongst the to-be-expected fine folk-tinged songwriting and the impeccable production (Jeff Tweedy, Grand Wizard of Sound) it’s hard not to come away with concerns about Richard Thompson and his relationship with women.
Having done a bit of digging around, it’s something that has been remarked on by others – not necessarily with any profile, but it’s not something that I seem to be wondering about in isolation. Take as a starting point the fact that the narrator is often positioned opposite an unlikeable, if not evil, woman, with songs ‘Where’s Your Heart’ and ‘Dungeons for Eyes’ as examples. Now, this in itself isn’t much to base an argument on – not least because the history of pop is chock full of broken hearted people exposing their misery and detailing the miserable treatment that they have endured within or without love.
It’s when we turn to the songs ‘Patty Don’t You Put Me Down’ and ‘All Buttoned Up’ that, in these days of much greater scrutiny of language, culture and behaviour relating to gender, power and sex, that Thompson comes undone. I’m mystified by the generous readings of the lyrics that other reviewers (more professional, more on-time) have given. The protagonist of ‘Patty..’ views the woman in question as akin to property, as childish, as stupid, as a liar and a cheater. Is she actively being wished harm when invited to “stick your fingers in a socket, and give yourself a glow” ?
In ‘All Buttoned Up’ we’re invited to eventually sympathise with a narrator who, despite not being able to get the sexual satisfaction he craves, stays with a woman, because he’s such a nice guy, and loves her so much. Well I pity her, if the language that her beau uses to explain himself is anything to go by: it’s all familiar, boorish, sexist nastiness: “saving her bed – her maidenhead – that’s what I call a waste of it”; “crosses her arms to hide all her charms, like she’s living in a nunnery”. Then there’s this excuse for rapacious thoughts (behaviour ?) “she dresses so racy, drawing man into temptation, with everything silky, satiny, lacy.” Did we time travel back into the 70s ? And finally listen to the tone of voice, the anger, the boiling pot waiting to spill over as he delivers the line that others seem to think confirm he’s alright, really: “My girl Kate, she wants me to wait, but I got urges don’t I? I got desires, raging fires, but I’ll do the right thing, won’t I ?” That final construction invites you to offer an answer, and given what you’ve just heard, you’re left thinking that the answer is ‘no’. What fate awaits Kate ?
What I have to add to this, in order to deal with potential opponents up front, is that I don’t think there’s any clue here that Thompson is seeking to inhabit these narrators for educational, comic, or moral effect. Perhaps someone reading can set me right. But I can find no clues that suggest something clever is going on. If they aren’t designed to highlight something that’s wrong, then what are they for ? Ultimately, their words have left a smell, undermining the more enjoyable works on display such as ‘Beatnik Blues’, ‘Long John Silver’ (which for my money is a nice dig at the political fat cats) and the lovely reflection on his bygone years ‘Guitar Heroes’.