My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.
Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.
Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.
Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.
Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.
“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.
The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:
Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm
I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.
Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.
We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:
Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste
Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.
June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:
But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.
In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!
We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.
And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.
June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:
And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.
Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.
You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.
The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:
There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away
He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away
Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away
The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:
And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away
She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:
There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?
The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.
“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.
“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.
The woman is a complete fucking idiot.
Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.
I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”
Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?
June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:
Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?
I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.
Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:
We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed
Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.
Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:
Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.
Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.
Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.
This review shot to the top of the list because I felt bad about dissing Linda Thompson in my review of Shoot Out the Lights.
I really don’t like writing negative reviews. I mean, who the fuck wants to listen to lousy music, shoddy performances, narcissistic love fests or lazy efforts by musicians who can coast on their fame because they know the fanatics will buy the damn record anyway? By extension, I don’t enjoy singling out substandard work by a musician on a particular album because I know from baseball that everyone can have an off day and going 0 for 4 or getting knocked out of the box after a third of an inning doesn’t mean that management should immediately ship the guy’s ass back to the minors.
On the other side of the coin, I have to call them like I hear them. In relation to Linda Thompson, I felt she mailed in her performance on Shoot Out the Lights, playing to her weakness as a technically limited singer. I still stand by that opinion.
To be fair(er), it’s likely that part of what drove her rather flat contributions to that album was the emotional drain of a crumbling marriage. Some performers deal with those situations better than others, and some like Billie Holiday or Robert Johnson were masters at integrating painful emotions based on traumatic life experiences into their vocal performances. And while duos who can barely tolerate each other are not all that unusual (Simon v. Garfunkel, Rogers v. Astaire, Don Everly v. Phil Everly), a marital split is the acrimonious experience par excellence.
So, to set the record straight and restore balance to the universe, while Shoot Out the Lights was not an album about the break-up as many critics claimed, the emotional strain from the break-up likely resulted in a less-than-satisfying effort from Linda Thompson.
I can’t go back in time and change Linda’s performance on that particular album—but what I can do is recognize her shining moments, and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight features many of those moments. Singers with limited range and variation can compensate with energy, commitment and emotional connection, and Linda’s performances on the album are in perfect sync with its highly varied lyrical content. Some of the songs demand exuberance while others call for bleak despair or bitter cold, and Linda’s vocals are on-point every time. Her vocal performances surpass the efforts of her then-hubby, who certainly took his time going through the voice change most guys complete during adolescence. Richard’s early vocals sound somewhat thin in comparison to the richer voice that emerged on Shoot Out the Lights, but he more than compensates with obvious spirit, outstanding guitar work and best-in-class songwriting.
Those songs feature modern stories and character sketches largely grounded in vernacular and instrumentation of British folk, an approach that gives the listener some comfort by suggesting that the highs and lows of the human experience we experience today are pretty much the same highs and lows experienced by our ancestors. This orientation is clearly demonstrated on the opening track, “When I Get to the Border.” The first two verses could have been written by an anonymous songcrafter of the 18th Century, but when the narrator reveals the reasons behind his desire to escape to a place beyond the border, there’s no question he’s a 20th Century Man experiencing classic Sunday night dread:
Monday morning, Monday morning
Closing in on me
I’m packing up and I’m running away
To where nobody picks on me
As he describes all the wonderful changes awaiting him once he crosses that border (“My troubles will all turn to sand/When I get to the border”), I hear echoes from the conversations I’ve had recently with friends stuck in the USA, who desperately believe in one of two fairy tales: one, if we get rid of Trump, everything will be all right; and two, if I move to (Europe, Asia, South America, Australia) my life will suddenly become immeasurably better. They forget that running away from a bad situation never works unless you have a place you really, really, really want to run to. Richard Thompson cleverly allows the narrator to feast on this sort of one-sided fantasy for much of the song, a subtle hint that his dreams of reaching the Land of Oz are unlikely to bear fruit. The one thing this gent does have to look forward to is a “Salty girl with yellow hair/Waiting in that rocking chair,” an image that doesn’t give us much hope that she’s the British version of Helen of Troy.
The builds and blends on “When I Come to the Border” are simply fabulous. The song opens with very modest acoustic guitar chords cueing the band to enter with low-key backing. The first verse is voice, acoustic, bass and drums; on the second verse, Richard adds some light electric guitar fills. The first smile on the listener’s face takes place at the start of the bridge, when wham! Linda and Richard harmonize over Richard’s mandolin, suddenly turning black-and-white into full color. A mandolin-electric guitar duet adds another smile and more color, creating a new plateau that continues through the end of the verses. The long fade makes the smile permanent as the band takes the piece to an even higher plane, featuring a cornucopia of instruments trading leads and fills—guitar, krummhorn, accordion, concertina, mandolin, tin whistle—that bring to mind the everybody-join-in-the-fun atmosphere of a pub with singing waiters. Rising from its modest beginnings, “When I Get to the Border” turns out to be a welcoming display of the songwriting excellence and musical variety that characterize the album.
Richard Thompson described “Calvary Cross” as a song “about a muse, or about anything. It’s about a drive that you might not want, but it’s there, and you’re a slave to it.” The woman’s “one green eye” indicates she’s a jealous mistress, seeking nothing less than complete control (“Everything you do/Oh, everything you do/You do for me”). The other half of this fascinating creature exists on a the positive pole, one who will “be your light until doomsday.” The balance is described in the line, “My claw’s in you and my light’s in you,” but she immediately adds, “This is your first day of sorrow.” The artist can never escape the clutches of the muse, and the song’s setting under the calvary cross is meant to convey a life of suffering.
Most of the buzz about this song has to do with Richard’s guitar work, particularly in the many live versions available on recordings both legitimate and bootleg (you can sample several on YouTube). The primary solo on the studio version album serves as a lengthy introduction to the song, a twisting, tortured barrage of notes that echo bagpipe and sitar. The deluxe version of the album features a version that clocks in at almost ten minutes and in parts feels more like a duet featuring both Richard and drummer Dave Mattacks in roughly equal measure. The live solos vary quite a bit, but most take place in an extended segment following the verses, where Richard goes deep to connect with his muse, depicting the love-hate affair with stunning work that is absolutely entrancing.
Linda takes the lead on “Withered and Died,” and it’s hard for me not to hear this song about crushed dreams through the lens of a present-day inhabitant of the United States:
This cruel country has driven me down
Teased me and lied, teased me and lied
I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town
My dreams have withered and died
Perhaps “Withered and Died” should become the American anti-anthem of our time, as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” became the anti-anthem for soldiers stuck in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Great songs often express feelings that listeners transfer to other contexts that have no connection to the songwriter’s intent.
In truth, “Withered and Died” has more to do with the dashed hopes and dreams of a young woman who arrives in a new town full of excitement, and her initial impressions indicate the town threw out the welcome mat for her: “Kind words in my ear, kind faces to see.” Things go sour quickly due to a failed relationship, leaving her with a broken spirit, hungering for freedom from her troubles:
If I was a butterfly, live for a day
I could be free just blowing away
While Linda’s vocal is appropriately despairing throughout much of the song, her voice rises to the occasion on that couplet, momentarily floating high above the understated background support to express her one remaining wish. “Withered and Died” is a deeply moving piece, a timeless song about the challenges inherent in the rite of passage from the naive hopes of adolescence to the inevitable disappointments of adulthood.
After two trips to the dark side, something cheerful would be really nice right about now and Linda delivers with her spirited rendition of “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” receiving suitably brassy support from The CWS (Manchester) Silver Band. The desire to swap regimentation for chaos that drives the working masses to bars and dance floors on weekend nights is vividly depicted in both Linda’s vocal and in the lines given to the character she plays. “I need to spend some money and it just won’t wait,” she explains to her escort, revealing herself as a proud and independent woman of sufficient means to make it through the weekend. In addition to close dancing, she is desperately hungry for the release of manageable madness:
A couple of drunken knights rolling on the floor
Is just the kind of mess I’m looking for
I’m gonna dream ’till Monday comes in sight
I want to see the bright lights tonight
Our heroine obviously doesn’t mind the violent potential of the “big boys . . . spoiling for a fight,” as she views mixing it up as just another form of release unique to the male half of the species. More than just a “let’s party” song, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” captures the existential motivation that sends millions of people to Vegas every year—the need to let one’s hair down, show some cleavage and do all the naughty things that are socially unacceptable inside the boundaries of nine to five—all within the safe confines of a non-judgmental environment supported by the sacred commandment, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
I have a dream . . . that someday the Vegas ethic will become the universal imperative of the human race.
That dream is somewhat tempered by the harsh realities of alcoholism and mental illness described starkly and movingly in “Down Where the Drunkards Roll.” Linda approaches her vocal with sad detachment mellowed by obvious compassion for the victims and a clear sense of the indignity of it all. Accompanied only by Richard’s exquisite work on acoustic guitar and chilling bass-range harmonies, Linda relates stories of the fallen in the first three verses—the young bucks who drink themselves into oblivion, the young man who fails in love and is forced to seek a low-priced hooker, and a woman suffering from unknown trauma who finds some kind of validation in the unreal world of the outcast:
There goes a troubled woman
She dreams a troubled dream
She lives out on the highway
She keeps her money clean
Soon she’ll be returning
To the place where she’s the queen
Down where the drunkards roll (2)
The final verse points out the curious similarities between the non-judgmental ethic of weekend nights and the even looser norms of acceptance among people who have hit rock bottom. Those banished from society for their failures, shortcomings and clinical diagnoses are more likely to find comfort among the fallen:
You can be a gambler
Who never drew a hand
You can be a sailor
Who never left dry land
You can be Lord Jesus
All the world will understand
Down where the drunkards roll (2)
Even at this relatively early stage in his career, Richard Thompson’s insistence on writing songs about those whom society would rather forget is uncompromising, and his gift for language results in songs like this that are searing and unforgettable.
Figuring wisely that we need another break from human inhumanity, Richard offers the very traditional “We Sing Hallelujah.” There are many English folk songs that employ a series of metaphoric riddles to describe the human experience; here Richard adds to the genre with a series of metaphors about men (in the outdated, generic universal use of the word). Unsurprisingly, the metaphors all end in disaster: “a man is like a rusty wheel . . . and then he falls apart,” “a man is like a briar . . . he laughs like a clown when his fortune’s down and his clothes are ragged and torn,” etc. The last riddle paints a particularly gloomy picture of man’s existence:
A man is like his father
Wishes he never was born
He longs for the time when the clock will chime
And he’s dead forevermore
As the music clearly communicates good fun with the return of the krummhorns and a joyous group vocal . . . and the chorus is only partially and ironically dreary . . . I’m going to claim that “We Sing Hallelujah” is about the human tendency to see the worst side of everything in life balanced by the opposing force of the human spirit that picks us up when we’re down. The song certainly accomplishes the mission of restoring listener energy after “Down Where the Drunkards Roll.”
The good fun fades quickly into memory with the heartbreaking “Has He Got a Friend for Me,” a tune about a girl who is “clumsy and shy” who believes she wouldn’t attract notice even if she were “in the gutter, or dangling down from a tree.” The line that breaks my heart with its undeniable truth is “And nobody wants to know anyone lonely like me,” for loneliness is often accompanied by auras of awkwardness or desperation that make potential friends wary of offering their company. Linda navigates the challenging melodic line while maintaining just the right levels of the varying emotions; Richard’s acoustic guitar is tender and empathetic; the tin whistle mirrors the thin fragility of the anti-heroine.
Changing costume in record time, Linda transforms herself from future spinster to saucy sprite in “The Little Beggar Girl.” Marked by a traditional full-throated chorus that bears repeating again and again, the peg-legged little wench balances her dependence on contributions from the elite with a tart tongue, delivering pungent asides as the privileged step down from their lofty perches to make their modest donations:
I’ve been down to London, I’ve been up to Crewe
I travel far and wide to do the work that I do
‘Cause I love taking money off a snob like you
For I’m only a poor little beggar girl
Linda really gets into the part, varying her tone from sarcastically sweet and accommodating to screw-the-bastards bite. The chorus is an absolute delight, with Richard entering in harmony as a cue for the listener to sing along. It’s almost impossible not to join in by the third go-round, and melodic structure gives those participating at home lots of opportunity to contribute harmonies or responsive fills.
You’ll need to save some of the positive energy from “Poor Little Beggar Girl” to get you through the bleakest song of all, “End of the Rainbow.” The song is structured as a dramatic monologue in which a father of a newborn leans over the cradle and imparts his wisdom concerning the life journey awaiting his child:
I feel for you, you little horror
Safe at your mother’s breast
No lucky break for you around the corner
‘Cause your father is a bully
And he thinks that you’re a pest
And your sister she’s no better than a whore
Life seems so rosy in the cradle
But I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore
Gee thanks, Dad!
The father goes on to tell the kid how capitalists large and small will continually rip him off, how his future adult male companions will put a knife to his throat at the slightest provocation, that everyone competes against everyone else and that most of the people who inhabit the world belong to the walking dead. He offers no hope, no helpful advice and not a single sliver of sunshine. The song has made critics somewhat uneasy, and several have expressed discomfort with the world view Richard Thompson expresses in those unrelentingly dreary lines.
Methinks they’re missing the point here. “End of the Rainbow” has nothing to do with how Richard Thompson views the world. He’s not talking here—the father is. Richard is playing a role, capiche? This is a song about parenting, not how shitty the world is. The question listeners should consider once the song ends is, “How do we allow such losers to become parents?” This is a guy who has already decided that his other kid is a worthless piece of crap, so why have another child? He’s obviously not doing well from a financial perspective, so why add this “little horror” to the balance sheet? And because he’s failed, he views the world through a madly discolored lens that convinces him that it’s everyone else’s fault but his own. This isn’t about unplanned parenthood, this is about unthinking parenthood and the traumatic consequences that follow from having a parent who hates a kid from the moment of conception—and the disastrous social consequences that follow.
From a musical perspective, “End of the Rainbow” is a hidden gem without a single superfluous note. The opening passage is an electric-acoustic duet where the acoustic guitar reflects the softly lit environment of a nursery and the electric guitar paints a picture of tense uncertainty with sustained fretboard-initiated vibrato. The chord pattern is relatively straightforward, with all the punctuation found in descending chords that eventually find their way back to the Cm root (adjusted to the Am position with a capo on the third fret).
The chord structure to “The Great Valerio” is more challenging, with the base pattern consisting of altering Bm/Fmdim chords, and an out-of-key shift to C#7 to open the chorus (again, much easier to play with a capo, this time on the second fret). The theme of human fascination with the tightrope walker had been covered a few years before in Jethro Tull’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” though Ian Anderson focused more on the secret pleasure of “being there” when the tightrope walker slips (“Like the man hung from the trapeze/Whose fall will satisfy”), whereas Richard Thompson uses the opportunity to comment on the nature of life itself and heroic projection. Linda’s vocal is suitably cold and detached, and while Richard’s acoustic guitar is typically excellent, I have a strong preference for June Tabor’s cover that opens her album Aleyn. Not only is June a far more capable singer and a practiced devotee of Richard’s music, but the addition of accordion and strings creates a macabre circus atmosphere in sync with the lyrical content.
And that wraps it up for I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, a commercial failure dismissed by the critics of the day now considered something of a masterpiece. The album still gets little in the way of tangible respect; according to Richard Thompson’s website, it is “out of print” in the USA. I attribute the lack of public support to the majority’s desire to hear music that makes them happy and avoid music that makes them sad—or, to put it another way, most people want to hear music that validates their fantasies and want nothing to do with music that deals with their unpleasant realities.
Given that unpleasant reality, it turns out that the real hero of the album isn’t The Great Valerio, but a courageous artist by the name of Richard Thompson.