Love me or hate me, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that my perspectives on music have never been influenced by commercial considerations, a desire for fame or the opinions of Establishment critics.
From a financial perspective, altrockchick.com is one of the worst-performing enterprises in history: after six years, 400 reviews and 1.5 million words, I have earned zero revenue while piling up thousands of dollars/euros in expenses. I write anonymously because the last thing in the world I want to experience is the personality distortion and general weirdness that usually comes with fame. I do read the opinions of Establishment critics, but most of the time I find myself offended by their sheer laziness, astonishing pomposity and the façade of objectivity they attempt to project. I’m sorry, but if you’re getting paid to write reviews for a magazine, newspaper or website, your objectivity is automatically compromised by the need to earn a paycheck, and the fact that the enterprise that employs you also sells advertising to the music industry compromises you even further. Commercialization of criticism demands short, punchy reviews that attempt to distill the essence of an artist’s work in as few words as possible so consumers can make buying decisions. It does not encourage understanding.
What’s sad is that many music listeners parrot the words and thoughts of Establishment critics instead of thinking for themselves. This dynamic helps create a common consensus around a particular work, and as I’ve learned in my reviews of Abbey Road, Arthur, Dark Side of the Moon and others, people who have accepted the common consensus—in large part because it validates the feeling of being “right” and lets them feel like they “belong” to a cohesive thought community—react to “No, I think that album really sucks” by aggressively attacking the heretic who dares to think differently. This is not healthy. The only valid purpose of criticism is to share one’s interpretations to help readers or listeners clarify what they feel and think about a given piece of work. In our fucked-up world, common consensus criticism has become the “official party line,” and woe unto those who deviate from the dogma.
I bring this up because the Establishment interpretation of Shoot Out the Lights has forged a common consensus that is total, unmitigated bullshit. Since they all come to the same conclusion, I’ll just cite two examples I found particularly offensive, and respond to each in turn.
Mark Deming, AllMusic: Shoot Out the Lights has “often been cited as Richard Thompson’s greatest work, and it’s difficult for anyone who has heard his body of work to argue the point.”
Altrockchick: According to Mr. Deming, Richard Thompson should have walked out of the studio after the final mixing session of Shoot Out the Lights and blown his brains out instead of hanging around for twenty-six years producing substandard work. Note that Mr. Deming dares you to disagree with the common consensus, which is pretty much all he has to support his ridiculous conclusion. I have listened to Richard Thompson’s entire body of work and I guarantee you he would not have earned status as my favorite songwriter had he abandoned his career after Shoot Out the Lights—shit, he wouldn’t have made the Top 20. His solo career features dozens of songs and several albums that are far superior to his work here. What is true is that Shoot Out the Lights was his breakout album—the moment in time when he developed a clear sense of artistic direction and emerging confidence.
Robert Christgau, Village Voice: “News of the wife’s solitary return to England brings this relationship-in-crisis album home–including the husband’s ‘bearded lady’ warning in ‘The Wall of Death,’ ostensibly a synthesis of his thanatotic urge and lowlife tic. If poor Richard’s merely ‘A Man in Need,’ I’m an ayatollah, but I have to give him credit–these are powerfully double-edged metaphors for the marriage struggle, and ‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?’ is as damning an answer song as Linda could wish.”
Altrockchick: Christgau has always been an arrogant prick, a man far more interested in self-promotion and the delivery of highfalutin’ wit than helping his readers better appreciate the music. His read here is superficial at best, focused more on the juicy titillation factor in the Thompson breakup than the content of the music itself, interpreting every song through the lens of a collapsing relationship. The truth is that even an extremely loose interpretation of the lyrics on the album will tell you that a grand total of two of eight songs deal with relationship problems, and that neither “Wall of Death,” nor “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” have anything to do with the Thompson situation. His “thoughts” on this album (minus the usual pompous references) barely rise to the standards of a gossip columnist.
There is also another problem in labeling Shoot Out the Lights Richard Thompson’s greatest work, namely the mediocre vocals of one Linda Thompson. Struggling with her diaphragmatic breathing due to pregnancy, she manages to hit the notes most of the time, but her phrasing is inconsistent, sometimes disconnected from the lyrics she’s singing. Her primary means of expressing emotion is to raise her volume, but since she also gets louder when straining to reach notes at the upper end of her range, it’s hard to tell when she’s going for feeling or struggling with the scale. Truth is, she wasn’t much of a singer to begin with, especially when compared to her contemporaries. With Linda Thompson, you don’t get the stunning clarity of Anne Briggs, the remarkable presence of Sandy Denny, the breathtaking range and dynamic command of Maddy Prior, or the brilliant interpretive skills of June Tabor. Replace Linda with any of those singers and you’d certainly have a better album, though to label it Richard Thompson’s greatest work would still be a rather significant stretch. Shoot Out the Lights is like the key that unlocked the door, a celebration of self-discovery where Richard Thompson resolved the internal struggle between the spiritual and secular, reconnected with his guitar and began to live up to his immense potential as a songwriter.
The first thing you notice on “Don’t Renege on Our Love” is Richard Thompson’s new-found confidence in his vocals. If you listen to the Richard & Linda albums preceding Shoot Out the Lights, Richard sings almost apologetically, like he’s concerned that taking command will expose a fatal flaw. Here he sticks self-deprecation where the sun don’t shine and delivers a forceful but attenuated vocal that captures a range of psychic states, from frustrated lover to broken-hearted beggar to outraged victim of betrayal. The notion of betrayal will become a major theme in his work to come; at this point, his sense of right-and-wrong is as rigid as rigid gets (“Do I take you for a lover or just a deceiver?”), failing to recognize that the whole thing could be a simple misunderstanding. The theme of betrayal also carries with it a deeply held belief that for love to be real it must be pure in word and deed, including love in its carnal form. It’s a belief I hold myself, but when distrust begins to creep into a relationship, it’s easy for the still-active libido to rise up and offer itself as the solution to the relationship problem—if we can just fuck, everything will be all right. The problem is that when the poison starts to spread in concert with the sexual urge, it amplifies the original suspicion, negating the healing power of physical love:
There’s a rope that binds us and I don’t want to break it
If love is a healing why should we forsake it
Well hunger is hunger and need is need
Am I just another mouth to feed
That creeping, dark feeling is perfectly captured in the progressively dissonant chord changes that accompany the fade—a punctuation mark that clearly communicates both the underlying fear and the unlikelihood that the relationship can be salvaged. I love the sprightly, sharp guitar fills throughout the song—just enough and not too much from a man who has the guitar chops to dominate any song he chooses to dominate. I’d also love to pin some kind of medal on Dave Mattacks for sustaining the skip-and-roll pattern throughout the song without having his arms lock up in protest.
“Walking on a Wire” may present us with the woman’s side of the same story; then again, maybe not. It’s easy to make that assumption because of the juxtaposition, but to take that a step further and connect the two songs to the Thompson breakup would be an overreach. Richard wrote both songs, and there’s nothing about “Walking on a Wire” that makes it gender-specific. The one thing we can say with certainty is that “Walking on a Wire” is an emotional powerhouse sung from the perspective of a human being experiencing the slow death of a relationship and unable to do anything to stop it. Here Linda overcomes the challenges of a compromised voice, oscillating between the release of repressed frustration and the utter exhaustion that comes with an attempt to a rescue a relationship that is probably long gone.
Too many steps to take
Too many spells to break
Too many nights awake
And no one else
This grindstone’s wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don’t use me endlessly
It’s too long, too long to myself
Richard’s low-end harmony on the chorus helps strengthen the sense of despair that permeates the piece, and he delivers another superb guitar solo that reinforces the tender melody.
After two relatively heavy pieces, the bouncy “Man in Need” comes as something of a relief, and no, Mr. Christgau, this is not Richard Thompson singing about Richard Thompson but Richard Thompson playing the part of a peripatetic man of the sea whose urge to wander and fear of commitment leaves him in quite a pickle when it comes to securing the basics of food, shelter and clothing. His conundrum is “Hey, I’m only doing what comes natural to me” and is completely oblivious to the fact that most people would consider a man who abandoned his dependents and has proven himself little more than a sponge to be an undesirable companion. Richard Thompson delivers the vocal with carefree abandon, tongue firmly planted in cheek, supported by a cascading set of call-and-response vocals from Linda on the chorus. The guitar solo is an absolute delight, a set of nimble thrusts centered around the melody, a solo that makes you wonder about the sanity of the Mullah who had encouraged Richard Thompson to give up playing electric guitar to facilitate his quest for higher spiritual consciousness. That idiotic advice led to a three-year hiatus after Pour Down Like Silver, but he really wouldn’t regain the sparkle in his chops until Shoot Out the Lights—and thank fucking god he did.
Linda returns to the mike for “Just the Motion,” a gentle, reflective piece that reminds us that any change to the routine is more difficult than we’d like to believe. For the most part, she does a decent job, particularly in the quieter opening verse. Unfortunately, when she arrives at the ending, she goes classic crescendo when the song demands the opposite. This is most noticeable on the second repetition of the line, “You can’t hear the storm, it’s as peaceful as can be.” The text after the comma should be delivered like this:
as can be
Instead, we get:
as can be
Every time I hear her ramp up the volume on PEACEFUL–a word that by definition should alert the singer to back the fuck off—I clench my teeth so hard I feel an overwhelming urge to run to the dentist to make sure I didn’t break a molar. It comes across as “Goddamn it, can’t I get any PEACE AND QUIET around here?” Since the only other cover of the song is David Byrne’s typically beat-happy approach, I’ll just have to sit back and hope that June Tabor decides to finally put together a Richard Thompson tribute album and give us the definitive version. What saves this track is the sheer excellence of the song and the perfectly lovely combination of electric guitar and dulcimer. “Just the Motion” is a gem that deserves better treatment.
Side Two opens with the rough power chords that form the intro to the title song, a clear signal that Richard Thompson has thrown all caution to the wind when it comes to electric guitar. He approaches the vocal with an equal sense of command, relating the tale of a paranoid, gun-toting, anti-social shut-in with stark brevity. The slow, relentless beat accentuated by those power chords seem to reflect a sense of cold determination on the part of our shut-in, making his chosen isolation seem all the more dangerous:
Keep the blind down on the window
Ah, keep the pain on the inside
Just watching the dark. Just watching the dark.
Ah he might laugh but you won’t see him
As he thunders through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
After an extended electric guitar solo with loads of dissonance and unexpected shifts over the fretboard, the closing verse expands the sense of danger. Up to this point, the guy seemed to be a crackpot more likely to do harm to himself or inflict mayhem on a few stray neons in the vicinity; now the man is on the move and we start to wonder if the lights in question are the lights of human life:
In the darkness the shadows move
In the darkness the game is real
Real as a gun. Real as a gun.
As he watches the lights of the city
And he moves through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
A second ripping solo accentuates the high end of the fretboard in an extended scream, followed by attacks both high and low. The experience of “Shoot Out the Lights” is remarkably compelling, a disturbing but credible depiction of the anger that courses through those who feel they have been left behind—by choice or by social selection.
“Back Street Slide” is a character sketch portraying women who have little else to do but spread slanderous gossip about anyone who flies through their finely-attuned radar screens. “Gatemouth woman leaning on the fence/She’s got no teeth, she’s got no sense/You don’t need much intelligence” is a pithy description, but in the end the lyrical narrative doesn’t go much further. The strength of the song can be found in the bouncy beat and party-like feel of the arrangement, melding the joyous rhythm with loosely-fitting background vocals from Linda. I like the listening experience, but the song shows that Richard Thompson still had room to grow as a lyricist—and grow he would, Mark Deming be damned.
The only co-written song on “Shoot Out the Lights” is “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” where Linda Thompson shares the honors. Christgau’s assertion that this is some kind of answer song in the context of the breakup is certainly a creative interpretation, but there’s no evidence to support that flight of fancy. Any rational person who ACTUALLY READS THE LYRICS would conclude that the song deals with the status of women in society. And though Linda Thompson’s receives co-writing credit, Richard Thompson wrote the lyrics, and in a 2008 interview with the blogger behind I Shot a Man in Reno, Richard shared his approach to the song:
How do you approach the subject of death in your writing? Do you consciously come at it from a specific angle?
You don’t sit down to moralise or write about your philosophy every time you write a song. You just write a story. It’s fiction and it’s fun to make something up, it’s an enjoyable process. Then you look at it afterwards and you think, ‘Oh that’s obviously about me or about someone I know, and that reflects what I believe.’ With a song like “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” I sat down to write a story. It could be about Sandy [Denny] or a couple of other people that I know…. I don’t think it is about any person in particular. It’s a bit like detective fiction, it has some of the same goriness and detail. In good detective fiction there’s always a corpse, otherwise you feel unsatisifed. The song doesn’t really give any answers, it just asks the moral questions.
The “moral question” has to do with society’s tendency to doubt a woman’s credibility. Since it’s pretty obvious that the woman in the song did not off herself (given the fingerprints on her throat) some may wonder why the premise of the song is posed as a mystery, but every woman alive knows the answer to that question: the broad is always to blame, never to be believed, and if she was raped and strangled, she must have been asking for it. The fact that we need to ask the question is the moral of the story.
In this case, the woman was definitely trying to become a player, inviting only “the chosen” to her parties, double-crossing old friends without a second thought. In addition to committing the cardinal sin of encroaching on traditional male territory, she makes the same mistake many women have made in attempting to achieve equality: believing that if you want to play with the guys, you have to act like a guy. We do not know what specifically led to her death, but she did fail to take into account the warning signs that she was pushing too hard: “The truth came ’round and she refused it.” Her “fatal flaw” was her ambition—or more accurately, that she dared to even have ambitions. Wherever you land in the interpretation, “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” is a superbly-written work, a song that leaves plenty of room for the listener to engage in both debate and self-reflection on the status of women in our societies.
Some of Richard Thompson’s stories are dramatic narratives sung from the perspective of the adolescent male, with “Read About Love” earning status as my personal favorite. “Wall of Death” is one such song, and any interpretation that says otherwise is absolute nonsense (Hello, Robert Christgau). This is a light-hearted song about how the natural desire of a young person to experience the essence of life tends to lead the youth to court risk and tempt fate—in this case, to experience the most dangerous carnival ride available, The Wall of Death.
This seemed to be a guy thing, a necessary rite of passage into culturally-induced manhood, so I asked my Dad about it. He told me that in high school, he and his friends liked to drive down Highway 1 around Devil’s Slide, a twisty, curvy dangerous coastal road that sometimes falls into the ocean in torrential rains. They’d take the curves at double the speed limit, then rate the risk factor on a 1-10 scale. “A ’10’ was death. We had a ‘9’ once, with two wheels over the edge of the cliff. I’ll never forget that one.” “Why the fuck did you do such a fucking stupid thing?” I asked politely and respectfully. “I can’t explain it—it was dumb but we just had to do it. It’s a version of the Rebel Without a Cause thing—floor it, head for the cliff and jump out just in time.” “Uh, Dad, Buzz didn’t make it.” “Yeah, but Jim did,” he replied with a tenuous sense of triumph.
Our teenage hero embraces that urge, dismissing the more conventional outlets of excitement as poor substitutes for the ultimate thrill:
On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free
Well you’re going nowhere
When you ride on the carousel
And maybe you’re strong
But what’s the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy.
Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
When he later describes the experience as “the nearest thing to being alive,” he reinforces the belief that the daily routine is a form of existential death while capturing the feature of the human personality that leads us to feel more alive and alert when faced with danger, especially when one’s life is on the line. It’s the same tendency we see in the stories of people who lived through WWII (on the Allied side, of course), who describe those years as the most exciting of their lives. It seems crazy, but when you look at it from the opposite perspective, it’s a damning commentary about how our well-organized societies fail to provide much in the way of meaningful challenges.
The music is hardly funereal, featuring stereo arpeggiated guitar patterns and Linda’s best high harmonies on the album. Richard Thompson really identifies with the character, imbuing his vocal with the tone of a guy who has found his niche in life and is intensely proud of it. And goddamn, I love that guitar solo—especially that delightful high-speed arpeggiated transition back to the vocals. It sounds magical, reflecting the magical experience of an adolescent boy experiencing the thrill of his life.
“Wall of Death” is a strong finish to an album that is hardly the one-dimensional exploration of a breakup that Establishment critics would have you believe. Shoot Out the Lights explores a wide range of the human experience, as do most of Richard Thompson’s subsequent works. Like the boy in “Wall of Death,” Richard Thompson has found his niche; unlike that young lad obsessed with a single experience, Richard Thompson would find himself at home anywhere his creative mind would take him—an aesthetically-oriented wanderer, a “Man in Need” with clear intent to apply his ample musical talent to the challenge of understanding the many facets of human experience.
Shoot Out the Lights is simply the true beginning of one of the most productive and enjoyable journeys ever recorded.