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.
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.