Faithful in Her Fashion
The cover of Richard and Linda Thompson's 1982 LP, Shoot Out the Lights, shows a room in the aftermath of an upheaval. The wallpaper is torn and streaked by burn marks. A bare bulb swings across the ceiling, lighting the space with a sickly yellow. A man sits in the corner, laughing with his mouth but not his eyes. Above him, on the wall to his right, hangs a portrait of an enigmatic woman, lips parted and unsmiling.
Twenty years later, on the cover of Linda Thompson's Fashionably Late, that same woman sits on a floor, near a similar corner, in a calmly lit room. The carpet looks pricey. The walls are painted dove-gray. The woman's gaze is still direct and solemn. And above her, against the wall to her right, stands an easel holding a gold frame, ascending beyond our vision.
Who's in the picture? In the avid community of Richard Thompson fans--please don't call it a cult--the question has occupied much speculation since the news of his ex-wife's first album in 17 years.
England's answer to George Jones and Tammy Wynette invited life-vs.-art questions two decades ago, when they embarked on their first American tour, in support of Shoot Out the Lights, in the midst of a marital cataclysm. Linda had struggled with vocal problems since the first of her three pregnancies, spent several years of her marriage in an ascetic and paternalistic Muslim commune, and taken the news--a few months before the tour--of her husband's new lover with a rage that was most remarkable for its unbridled visibility. (She has said that she hit Richard over the head with his own guitar, frequently tripped him onstage, and trashed enough dressing rooms to be called "worse than the Sex Pistols.") That the album's sad, desperate songs ("Man in Need," "Walking on a Wire," "Don't Renege on Our Love") predated the couple's breakup made them no less gripping--especially when they were performed by a pair of stellar talents in extremis.
So it's understandable that fans of both Thompsons want that gilt edge to hold Richard's head. In fact, Linda's ex frames Fashionably Late, not the other way around. He plays guitar and sings backing vocal on the opening track, "Dear Mary"; the closer, "Dear Old Man of Mine," features Linda, accompanied only by children Teddy and Kamila Thompson, toasting "the man...Singing like he's got a gun to his head.../It was long ago that I said goodbye to that dear old man of mine." The Fashionably Late publicity machine, knowing its audience, is milking this "reunion" for all it's worth. And Linda has happily complied with the roman a clef readers, telling the New York Daily News, "I was thinking at one point of putting brackets after each song saying who they were for."
The most influential Thompson man on this album is not Richard, however, but 26-year-old Teddy, who wrote or co-wrote six of Fashionably Late's 10 tracks and sings or plays on five of them. Signed to, then dropped from, the Virgin Records roster with barely enough time in between to eke out a creditable solo album two years ago, Teddy has most recently been seen in the touring band of fellow folkie offspring Rufus Wainwright. Not yet having managed Rufus' trick of a reputation independent of his parents', Teddy has, happily for us, capitulated to his genes and given some quality time to Mum.
On "Evona Darling"--by Lal Waterson, a member of yet another folk dynasty--Teddy and Linda's eerily similar voices are entwined in a languid, Everlyesque duet. And on his own "All I See," Teddy and Wainwright sibs Rufus and Martha replicate the ensemble-vocal strength they displayed on Rufus' excellent Poses. But Teddy is most valuable on Fashionably Late as half of a songwriting team with his mother, displaying the family gift for ready-made oldies: the lilting Americana harmonies of "Dear Mary"; the doomy "Nine Stone Rig," on which guitarist John Doyle and double-bassist Danny Thompson pluck their strings into a smoky haze; and the perfectly composed aural daguerreotype "Miss Murray," featuring Doyle, British wunderkind singer Kate Rusby, and a Geoff Muldaur arrangement for fiddle-player Richard Greene and accordionist Van Dyke Parks.
Much of the new album's success, in fact, comes from Linda's surrounding herself with members of her extended musical family: guitarist Martin Carthy and his fiddler daughter Eliza, who bring spunk to the no-boys-allowed "Weary Life" ("Better to be single than be a married wife"); string arranger Robert Kirby, who worked with Linda's old boyfriend Nick Drake and here gives "Paint & Powder Beauty" a woozy elegance; and WNYC's chief concert recording engineer, Ed Haber, who also produced Linda's retrospective Dreams Fly Away in 1996. Haber's modus operandi as producer is to stay out of the way as much as possible: Fashionably Late's tracks are pristinely simple, with a coffeehouse-stage freshness.
If this seems like a lot of name-dropping, it's only fair: Linda has gotten through this record, and through the whole of the post-Richard era, with more than a little help from her friends. For much of the past 20 years, she has been unable to sing because of hysterical dysphonia, an inelegantly named condition in which, as she puts it, "you open your mouth and nothing happens." She managed a 1985 solo album, One Clear Moment, before retiring from the music business. Only recently has she ventured onto the stage again. Pere Ubu's David Thomas literally held her hand through performances of his road-trip song cycle Mirror Man.
Although age, and perhaps disuse, have left their marks on Linda's vocals, all of the hallmarks of her sound are here: the Lalique coolness; the occasional rough edges, perfectly appropriate to "Nine Stone Rig" and "Miss Murray"; and those shiver-inducing low notes, which turn almost funereal on "Dear Old Man of Mine." On "Paint & Powder Beauty," co-written with Rufus Wainwright, Linda even essays some Billie Holiday-style bent notes--and it turns out that heartbroken jazz is a torch she was born to carry.
Linda's vocal problems are apparently the only reason this album had to wait until 2002. There's nothing here that sounds more modern than the work she did with Richard, circa 1975. "Paint & Powder Beauty" is unusual only because jazz balladry is one of the few musical paths the Thompsons left untrod. Indeed, Thompsons fans will find much that is familiar: Northumbrian smallpipes, crumhorns, and accordions, as well as old whores, dying lovers, and deadpan humor. Although Linda's voice hasn't quite been frozen in time, the spirit of her music from three decades ago has been preserved.
So is Fashionably Late a swan song or a new beginning? As strong as it is, it won't make Linda a crossover star; it's still going to end up in the Folk bin. Those busy publicists are preaching to the choir. Dysphonia already has a high-profile survivor in Diane Rehm, and Linda and Richard aren't exactly Angelina and Billy Bob. Ultimately, though, none of that matters: Fashionably Late comes off as the album Linda Thompson made for Linda Thompson. It's not about competing with a gaggle of aggressively marketed songstresses, most of them younger, slicker, and tooled for country or pop. And it's not about who's in the frame. It's about who holds the floor.