Unique among the recordings Richard Thompson has released in his solo career, the critics beat the hell out of Mirror Blue. “Not enough reverb!” they shouted. “Weird percussion!” they ranted. “Heavy-handed production!” they fumed.
When critics complain in unison, it’s frequently a clue that an artist is trying to do something different. Bob Dylan was slammed by folk purists for having the audacity to slip an electric guitar into his recordings. This silliness reminds us that critics are part of the human race and a sample of any cross-section of the human population will include arrogant anal-retentives.
Needless to say, I disagree violently with the consensus. Mirror Blue is my favorite Richard Thompson album for several reasons, but primarily because I love it when artists experiment with new ways of doing old things. Of course, it helps when the experiment is a success, and I believe that Mirror Blue is successful on many levels, especially in terms of the songwriting.
So, nyah, nyah and nanny-nanny-poo-poo to the critics! Mirror Blue rocks!
The album opens almost counter-intuitively with “For the Sake of Mary,” a sexy mid-tempo number with a great riff about human transformation and devotion with a musical mood of sexual and spiritual submission. That sounds rather abstract, but Richard Thompson is a master at making abstract feelings concrete:
In Needle Pete’s got my last tattoo
In bleeding letters of red and blue, for Mary
The upbeat number that one expects to open an album comes next with the delightfully playful, “I Can’t Wake Up to Save My Life,” featuring a kick-ass accordion (!) and a strong rhythm driven by that unusual percussion that the critics found so offensive. The song describes a nightmare involving meeting an old flame, highlighted by exceptionally vivid imagery and great humor:
Then the lightning streaks across the room
You smell like something fresh from the tomb
You squeeze too hard, you insist on kissing
When it seems like half your face is missing
And your hair’s turned into reptiles hissing
And I can’t wake up to save my life
“MGB-GT” opens with interlaced electric and acoustic guitar that sends me all atwitter, as does the passionate lead vocal on “The Way That It Shows.” The next song, “Easy There, Steady Now” features a fabulous arrangement with interlaced instrumentation over soft but steady cymbals and a stand-up bass. I love the way the acoustic guitar counterpoint provides continuity through the different sections of the song, and once again the lead vocal is spot on.
“King of Bohemia” is one of those songs that justifies June Tabor’s reference to the writer as “The Blessed Richard Thompson.” No one on earth is better at creating and performing songs strong enough to need nothing but acoustic guitar and voice. In the hands of other artists, this song would have been all gussied up with strings, ruining the simple beauty and subtracting the baseline passion from the lyrics:
Did your dreams die young? Were they too hard-won?
Did you reach too high and fall?
And there is no rest for the ones God blessed
And he blessed you best of all
“Shane and Dixie” is an upbeat song with a memorable chorus about a pair of two-bit crooks who can’t get their shit together, fall into violent arguments and end up one member short. In contrast to those that God blessed in “King of Bohemia,” these are a pair that neither God nor anyone else has much use for. “Mingus Eyes” is another very sensual number with sharp guitar cuts, solid toms and an intricate mix of instrumentation. The narrator is a guy who tries to adopt a pose to get the girl, but never quite pulls it off:
I never had the squint of James Dean
Or the Stanislavsky tears
Or the rebel hunch that kills
Or the smile that slowly disappears
Richard Thompson is a superb guitarist, of course, a talent that sustains the next song, “I Ride in Your Slipstream.” Here the acoustic guitar is used with great discipline only to emphasize the passion beneath the narrator’s dark tension as he tries to communicate his love. Even better is the lovely guitar work on another masterpiece, “Beeswing,” the story of two ramblers who meet on the road and, driven by the woman’s lust for freedom, move together over land and through life until the expectations of relationships create shackles she can no longer abide. When the more practical man suggests settling down, she responds with unrestricted expression of her need for liberty:
She said “Oh man, you foolish man,
It surely sounds like hell,
You might be Lord of half the world,
You’ll not own me as well.”
Oh she was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing,
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away.
She was a lost child, oh, she was running wild,
She said, “As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay,
And you wouldn’t want me any other way.”
The quirky tune “Fast Food” follows this gem (“Shove it in their faces, give ‘em what they want!”), a mélange of odd sounds and voices that always makes me laugh. “Mascara Tears” is a mid-tempo soul-rocker with a strong chorus and lead solo. Both pieces form a bridge between the more significant works, “Beeswing” and “Taking My Business Elsewhere.”’
Echoing the loneliness of his earlier masterpiece, “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” the response of the narrator in this tale differs from “Waltzing” by responding to rejection with false bravado and self-loathing. “Waltzing” is more of a heartbreak song where the response is more philosophical and metaphoric; “Business” communicates more bitterness:
It wasn’t for me, that spark in her eyes
It wasn’t for me, that halo in her hair
When she touched me a lump rose up into my throat
But she must act that way with any old soak
And waiter, you don’t seem to share in the joke
So I’ll be taking my business elsewhere
I can go back through Richard Thompson’s discography from Fairport Convention to his later indie career and clearly identify the unifying thread: quality. He has always been an artist of unusual intensity and talent, and for me, Mirror Blue is an exceptional piece of work that vividly demonstrates his passion for music and his rare songwriting gifts. Critics be damned, Mirror Blue is one of his best.