Classic Music Review: Mock Tudor by Richard Thompson

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A dazzling display of the songwriter’s art. Click to buy.

I have a confession to make as well several corrections to the public record.

Every now and then I look at my À Propos de Moi page and feel frustrated. I couldn’t figure out why I felt that way until I started listening to Mock Tudor. If you are unfamiliar with the record, one of its many motifs is the contrast between façade and the ugly reality beneath the façade.

The problem with my mini-bio is that I tell you all the things I like and all the things I’m good at but I don’t admit to any flaws. I have essentially constructed a façade. While my character sketch is absolutely truthful in terms of the information shared, I have excluded information that might give you a different and less pleasing picture of the person you know as The Alt Rock Chick.

I apologize for my deceitful behavior. I do not want to give the reading public the impression that I am perfect or that I believe that I am perfect. I have more flaws than I would like to admit, and it’s time to come clean and admit some of my gross impurities.

Here are the first ten deficits that come to mind. I will make further disclosures when appropriate.

  1. My vision is faulty. I wear contacts and sometimes I wear glasses.
  2. I have a birthmark: a discoloration on my left thigh.
  3. I’ve previously admitted that when I was a little girl I was an anti-litter nazi and a neat freak. I am not as strident as I was, but I remain obsessive about keeping my spaces spick-and-span. If you come over to my place and you don’t put a coaster under your wine glass, you’ll never get out of there alive.
  4. I love sour things. I love to suck lemons with salt and I am passionate about vinegar. Did you know that white vinegar can destroy many molds and clean wine stains from carpets?
  5. I speak near-fluent French, decent Spanish and a tiny bit of German, but I’ve never been able to get my head around Italian. All those vowels freak me out. There is no term for vowel phobia, indicating that the disability is still in the closet. I shall do penance by devoting my life to seeking out fellow vowel-fearing people and inventing a new form of therapy for us.
  6. I haven’t had a physical exam in years. The last time I went to the doctor he told me to quit smoking. I poked my finger in his big fat belly and told him he was the last person on earth to dispense advice on healthy habits. He never sent me a reminder for my next annual exam, which told me that I had won the argument and was better off managing my own health instead of relying on the advice of a hypocrite.
  7. I do keep regular appointments with my gynecologist, dentist and dermatologist. Especially my dermatologist. I study my face in the mirror every day for signs of dermal imperfections. Whether it’s pride, vanity or an extension of my obsession with neatness, I am devastated when my face is attacked by a zit.
  8. I can be rude when riding public transit if I need to be. I always get on the bus or train with a pleasant smile on my face but I learned through experience that a smile won’t get you a seat but a barrage of elbows. I learned from the little old ladies in San Francisco’s Chinatown that if you wanted a seat on the Muni, you had to get onto that bus kicking, screaming, elbowing and shoving. That’s also how I play basketball, too, so don’t fuck with me on the court. This bitch has game.
  9. I am a terrible driver because of flaw number ten.
  10. I have no patience for stupid people. Stupidity enrages me.

I realize that my confession may cause you to unsubscribe from this blog or stop following me on Twitter, but I had to purge my soul. Having ripped away the mask and confessed my sins to the reading public, I now feel humble enough to review Mock Tudor.

I also talk too much and take a long time getting to the fucking point.

*****

Richard Thompson’s last studio album before going indie is one of his most dynamic and muscular works. Every song brims with enthusiasm and energy, but none more so than one of the best album-openers of all time, “Cooksferry Queen.”

Mock Tudor is divided into three thematic segments; the first is called Metroland. These songs all deal with what passes for love and life in the outer rings of the London metro area. As best as I can figure from a London metro transit map, Cooks Ferry is a neighborhood (or a bus stop) in Upper Edmonton, a place that was once home to the semi-famous Cooks Ferry Inn, which started life as a jazz club in the postwar years but in the 60’s accommodated some of the hottest acts in rock, including Cream, The Who, Spencer Davis and Led Zeppelin. In a move that Ray Davies likely viewed with stern and justifiable disapproval, the inn was demolished for a road-widening project. According to Wikipedia, Upper Edmonton is one of the most culturally-diverse places in North London and has a serious problem with violent crime.

That all fits with the character Richard Thompson assumes in “Cooksferry Queen,” a chap by the name of Mulvaney. The first thing you hear on Mock Tudor is Richard singing the opening line a cappella; the remaining lines of the first verse are sung over muffled, bottom-string guitar chords. The first verse establishes the environment where Mulvaney flourishes with four brief but fully loaded lines of poetry:

Well there’s a house in an alley
In the squats and low-rise
Of a town with no future
But that’s where my future lies

The drums enter subtly on the second verse, where Mulvaney engages in a bit of foreshadowing with the observation that “Where you find the darkest avenue/There you’ll find the brightest jewel.” The build continues to get more complex with the addition of harmonium and bass as Mulvaney properly introduces himself in verse three:

Now my name it is Mulvaney
And I’m known quite famously
People speak my name in whispers
What higher praise can there be

This tough character schooled in the art of street-level survival has a tender spot for a certain girl: his Cooksferry Queen. When she is introduced, the band really starts to rock and Richard belts out Mulvaney’s awe-struck description of his “brightest jewel”:

She gave me one pill to get bigger
She gave me one pill to get small
I saw snakes dancing all around her feet
And dead men coming through the wall
Well, I’m the prince of this parish
I’ve been ruthless and I’ve been mean
But she blew my mind as she opened my eyes
She’s my Cooksferry Queen

Richard Thompson expresses all this with firm and passionate conviction, as if Mulvaney is daring anyone listening to question the truth of his tale. The music then explodes into a long instrumental passage dominated by hot harmonica and a rousing beat, mirroring Mulvaney’s intense animal passion. When Mulvaney resumes his tale, likely having finished off a pint or two in the interim, he elevates his poetry to an even higher level with some of the most memorable lines Richard Thompson has ever written:

Well she’s got every rare perfection
All her looks beyond compare
She’s got dresses that seem to float in the wind
Pre-Raphaelite curls in her hair

She could get the lame to walking
She could get the blind to see
She could make wine out of Thames river water
She could make a believer out of me

You can tell that Mulvaney takes great pride as the line “She could make wine out of Thames river water” escapes his lips: it is the image par excellence he has been reaching for in his paean to the Cooksferry Queen. The line also brilliantly restores us to the context in which Mulvaney finds himself: in the squats and low-rise, in a town with no future. He ends his tribute to the power of a woman with perhaps the most exaggerated claim of all: that he would give up his high-status place in a low-status world if she so wished:

Yes I’d trade it all tomorrow
All the wicked things I’ve been
She’s my bright jewel of the alley
She’s my Cooksferry Queen

Richard Thompson is positively ebullient in this piece, clicking on all cylinders and driving this baby home with some of the hardest rocking he’s ever done. “Cooksferry Queen” is an opening tour de force that leaves me breathless with admiration and joy . . . and the energy of the piece is on full display in one of my favorite videos:

Metroland is dominated by songs about women, but the title character of “Sibella” is a different proposition than the Cooksferry Queen. The head-over-heals narrator is speaking to the new girl in town who ” . . . took chances well within your means/Salon hair and creases in your jeans,” indicating an almost-middle-class lass with what the narrator perceives as a streak of pretentiousness: she observes tea-time, reads the classics and doesn’t go in for the gauche goings-on in Metroland.

Like a myth you rode in from the west
From the go you had my button pressed
Did the tea-time of your soul
Make you long for wilder days?
Did you never let Jack Kerouac
Wash over you in waves?

What the narrator struggles with is her inaccessibility, aggravated by his own insecurity from having grown up in an insecure environment weak on education:

Some say you can learn a lot from books
Thrill right to second-hand living
Life is just as deadly as it looks
But fiction is more forgiving

He has a hard time reconciling his carnal desires with her perceived purity, as if the arrival of this alien presence has shaken his world-view and opened new, uncomfortable possibilities inside (“I found myself, strange but true.”) There is a deep sense of ambiguity in the song; the music contrasts primitive drum beats with minor-key reflective passages, communicating a sense of mystery. Richard is in fine voice, and the more melancholy feel of the arrangement provides superb contrast after the raw excitement of “Cooksferry Queen.”

“Bathsheba Smiles” is similar in tone to “Sibella,” but the woman in question is anything but a bookworm. Bathsheba is the classic castrating bitch, the unattainable one who moves through life with extreme confidence in her power over men.

Bathsheba smiles
She smiles and veins turn to ice
She smiles and heads bow down
She works the room
Air-kisses every victim twice
She spreads her joy around

The fact that “no doubt can cross her mind” makes her strange and alluring to men raised on stereotypes of the weaker sex. She exploits that power in the way that everyone does in the Metroland—as a way to scratch out a living (“She shares her love/And sharing love is sharing wealth/Dig in your pockets please.”) More likely a gold-digger than a prostitute, she’s making maximum use of her assets to survive. What sets “Bathsheba Smiles” apart from the rest of the songs on Mock Tudor are the beautifully woven harmonies on the chorus that intensify the feeling that this woman is a rare combination of grace and magic.

Gold-digging is also suspected in “Two-Faced Love,” a dramatic monologue from a guy who’s all twisted inside about the games he and his love interest play with each other. This one is a moody rocker with a good, strong beat, and would be a terribly sexy song if the characters weren’t so romantically dysfunctional. Metroland ends with “Hard on Me,” a song with a noir soundscape describing the end game for all the male characters of Metroland: they’re forever trapped between animal and human, between repressed sexuality and the semi-violent diversion of sexual urges. Richard’s slightly dissonant and loose guitar solo says as much about the psychology of the men as the lyrics do.

The second part of Mock Tudor is given the deeply ironic title, Heroes in the Suburbs. This section opens with the intensely bitter but delightfully witty “Crawl Back (Under My Stone),” the cry of a lower-class spiv who has suffered a lifetime trapped in another place with no future and who seethes with anger over the perpetual denial of his existence in a class-driven society:

This time you hurt me
You really did it this time you did
Did you count your fingers after shaking my hand
God forbid
Riff raff crawling from the slums
Right there in front of all your chums
I swear by the pricking of my thumbs
I’ll make your day and melt away

I’ll crawl back under my stone (3)
But you won’t have to stand next to me
You won’t have to introduce me
You won’t have to think about, talk about, care about, me
I’ll crawl back

The spiv is caught in the act of trying to pass himself off for a person of higher station and launches into a neurotic investigation of where he fucked things up. The subtleties of accent? A piece of vocabulary in dialect?

You had me in a second you had it all reckoned, you did
You guessed my game and my name, rank and number, you did
Somehow I gave myself away
Some code, some word I didn’t say
I missed one line in the play
And the trap shut tight and you did me all right

Betwixt and between these verses is a very brief bridge where he expresses his life-goals, defining freedom in very modest terms thanks to his sub-cultural training in the way life works:

I want to be middle class
Floors and ceilings made of glass
I just want to be, I just want to be free

The rhythm of “Crawl Back” is largely modified reggae, reflecting the greater diversity of the lower classes and the simple and sad reality that frequently the path for even the most educated immigrant is to start at the bottom of the heap. It’s a gem of a song that reawakens the listener to another truth: people aren’t born scum, they’re turned into scum by a status-based system that can’t come to terms with the common humanity we all share. Just try to imagine what it feels like to be permanently unwanted wherever you are, and how it feels when people give you a look like you’ve just crawled out from under a rock.

“Uninhabited Man” is the sad tale of a “romantic ruin” whose melancholy demeanor is attractive to women on the lookout for a poor lost puppy. The references to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” seem to indicate his damaged disposition was caused by an unfaithful missus. Cause-and-effect aside, “Uninhabited Man” is confirmation that no one does sadness better than Richard Thompson, and the next song further supports that hypothesis. “Dry My Tears and Move On” is the prettier of the two sad songs, with Richard’s guitar fills and solo providing sweet complement to the story of a man trying to be brave in the face of rejection. Heroes of the Suburbs wraps up with the somewhat lighter music of “Walking the Long Miles Home.” The tale, however, is of a man who has just had a bit of a punch-up (not physical) with his sweetie, has had way too much to drink and has literally missed the bus. What lightens the song is the narrator’s drunken ramblings as he rambles through the neighborhood in the early morning hours, where he speculates that couples are “deep in the old voulez-vous” and fails to find companionship to relieve his essential isolation: “Ah, there’s nobody out but the cop on the beat/He’s snoring so loud I don’t hear my feet.”

The final segment of Mock Tudor is the three-song set Street Cries and Stage Whispers, where we arrive at the center of it all, London. The year was 1999, when Tony Blair was still considered hip, and thanks to the worldwide stock bubble, London was booming and everyone was getting rich . . . well, not everyone. The music to “The Sights and Sounds of London Town” is so disarmingly pleasant, you might think it was an audio travel brochure. The lyrics tell a completely different story:

Oh Gillian she’s a Doncaster lass
Trains it down on the quarter past
Friday night leaves the kids at home
And struts her stuff on the Euston Road
Saying “Do you want some company darling?
Do you want some company now?
My place, your place or no place
I could use the extra cash anyhow”
That’s the sights and sounds of London Town (3)

Oh Jean-Paul he came over from Toulouse
They told him that London was the golden goose
He never got his hands on enough to eat
He never did get his arse up off the street
Wanted to be a rap DJ
They took his pulse then they turned him away
Under the radar of your fellow man
With all that charisma it ain’t worth a damn
Saying “Lend me your shoes till Monday
Oh brother can you lend me a comb
I can wash dishes all night long
I just need my fare back home”
That’s the sights and sounds of London Town

The third verse tells the tale of Jackie who “tried just about everything” to make it in the scene and wound up with a habit. In the last verse, we meet Mickey, the violent spiv whose con artistry is in serious need of skill development. All these unsightly images are presented over a sweet arrangement of expressive acoustic guitar, mandolin and stand-up bass, all without the slightest trace of the melancholy you hear in “Uninhabited Man.” The effect of the conflict between music and lyrics is to mock the superficial cheerfulness of bubble-fueled London and the worldwide myth of The New Economy. “Sights and Sounds of London Town” is one of Richard Thompson’s most effective forays into social satire.

“That’s All, Amen, Close the Door” has somewhat ambiguous lyrics; the story either deals with a failed romance or the death of the loved one. I lean more towards the failed romance, but the line “There’s precious few that line the road” sounds like a reference to the crowds who lined the roads for Princess Di. Probably the weakest number on the record, it does have the virtue of linking the inhabitants of the city with the inhabitants of Metroland through the common human experience of failed love.

Mock Tudor and Street Cries and Stage Whispers both end with one of Richard Thompson’s most daring pieces, “Hope You Like the New Me.” The song captures one half of a conversation between two men. The emotionally-detached narrator describes the machinations he employed to defeat his male competitor in the death struggle for social status. The narrator speaks with pride of having mimicked and copied certain behaviors from his victim and using those to impress friends and influence people. Sung over a lonely arrangement of dissonant acoustic guitar chords, “Hope You Like the New Me” is a masterful display of dark humor with a deeply chilling undertone:

I stole your style
Hope you don’t mind
I must try to be all I can be
It suits me more
Than it ever suited you
Hope you like the new me

I stole your laugh
So bright and breezy
It stops parties in mid-air
It makes me feel more devil-may-care
Hope you like the new me (2) . . .

I stole your walk
The one with purpose
That says there is no mountain I can’t climb
It fools people all of the time
Hope you like the new me

I stole your jokes
Just the good ones
How the gang all laughed with glee
I also stole
The way that you tell them
Hope you like the new me (2) . . .

I stole your wife
Hope you don’t mind
She was looking bored don’t you think
I’ll soon have her back in the pink
Stop by and see us for tea

In the end, the narrator steals the chump’s soul, as if he had one in the first place. The integration of “success affirmations” in the lyrics is positively brilliant, but what I love most about the song is its breathtaking originality. At times I find myself laughing at the wit and sheer balls of this guy; at other times, he is as creepy as a person can get. In any case, “Hope You Like the New Me” is the perfect song to end a work dominated by the integrated themes of human and social imperfection, of façade and cold, cold reality.

Mock Tudor is one of the albums I’ll play when people ask me, “Who is your favorite songwriter?” “Richard Thompson, of course,” I reply, and while my company may debate the relative merits of the competition, they always go away impressed with the depth of his lyrics, the penetrating social consciousness and the excellence of his music. Few songwriters have created a body of work as impressive as Richard Thompson in any genre, and I always look forward to the experience of writing a review for one of his works.

I learn something about myself every time.

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