Universal Classics | September 3, 2007 | iTunes | Amazon
8/10• Stay Bright
• Versatile Heart
• The Way I Love You
• Katie Cruel
• Nice Cars
• Do Your Best For Rock ‘n’ Roll
• Day After Tomorrow
• Blue & Gold
• Give Me A Sad Song
• Go Home
• Whisky, Bob Copper & Me
• Stay Bright Despite the persistence of the vocal problems which have made both studio recording and live performance a recurrent challenge over the years (and that throughout the ‘90s seemed to have curtailed her career altogether), Linda Thompson has kept herself remarkably busy since the release of her long-awaited and well-received comeback album, Fashionably Late. Guest spots on records by son Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright and appearances at live shows, including the Leonard Cohen ‘Came So Far For Beauty’ tribute concerts and her own evenings of homage to the Music Hall tradition, have allowed Thompson to build on the momentum created by Fashionably Late and to forge a solo identity distinct from her work with ex-husband Richard on the classic albums they made together in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The excellent Versatile Heart continues her heartening creative renaissance. In mood, tone and the warmth of its acoustic trappings, the new album feels very much like a companion piece to the last, and continues the strongly collaborative ethos established by its predecessor. Martha Wainwright, accordionist John Kirkpatrick, and Martin and Eliza Carthy all make appearances, alongside Thompson’s daughter Kamila, and, most prominently, son Teddy, who contributes vocals and guitar work and gets co-writing credits across the album. Combining original material with songs by Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright, and book-ended by two gentle instrumentals entitled ‘Stay Bright’ (a statement of intent if ever there was one), the album feels all of a piece: the songs are united by the palpable love and respect of the players and by Thompson’s own deliciously sepulchral tones.
The delightful title track begins with Kate Rusby-esque brass and moves into a spry acoustic strum that’s immediately inviting. “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” Thompson inquires of an unworthy lover. “Say what you think, but please don’t stint on the praise.” The line encapsulates the disarming mixture of emotional candour and dry wit that characterises her songwriter and that of Teddy’s. Their lyrics teem with direct but delicately delivered emotional insights. “Nothing’s worth the holding if you can’t let go,” she muses on ‘The Way I Love You’, a stately ballad that pivots on the narrator’s recognition of her own neediness – “Father, brother, son’s too much for any man to do” – and benefits from Martha Wainwright’s lovely harmonies. Other originals such as ‘Blue & Gold, Give Me A Sad Song’ (penned with long-time collaborator Betsy Cook) and ‘Go Home’ are carefully crafted, boasting strong melodies and yielding more and more on each listen, while ‘Do Your Best For Rock ‘N Roll’ — which commences with the wry command “Take me to a bar and leave me there to die” — adds a pleasing dose of country twang to the proceedings. The tense ‘Nice Cars’, written by Kamila (who also contributes fine harmonies), finds the narrator trapped in a broken down vehicle that may or may not stand for a stalled relationship. “Ladies shouldn’t drive nice cars,” Thompson intones. “They’re only gonna break our hearts.”
Two particularly memorable tracks demonstrate Thompson’s special skills of interpretation. Plaintive strings usher in the elegant, Rufus-penned ‘Beauty’, a bespoke composition that offers a timely disquisition on the title concept, with Thompson wondering “Beauty, what is your face? / what has it given the human race? / all that it has given me is a longing for / pople and things I could never afford.” Halfway through the song, Antony Hegarty (who must surely have broken some record or other for the sheer number of guest appearances in the past year) shows up to add his ubiquitous quavering contribution, one that, unfortunately, is already in danger of beginning to sound somewhat phoned-in. It doesn’t help that his cameo occurs on what is arguably the song’s weakest lyrical moment, as Wainwright’s writing breaks the mood of reflection with some jarring references to Oscar Wilde and Michael Jackson. Nonetheless, the song remains one of the most immediately striking tracks on the album. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Day After Tomorrow’ also gets an arresting reading; the song is a heart-wrenching letter home from an American soldier fighting in an unspecified foreign war and beautifully juxtaposes the protagonist’s loss of faith in the conflict with nostalgic memories of hometown routine, and his anticipation of homecoming. Thompson’s spare interpretation gives the song the quality of an ancient prayer.
Despite the formidable art-rock credentials of much of the company she’s keeping here, Thompson is certainly unafraid of showing her folk roots, as evidenced by the “fiddle-da-day” flourishes on her biting rendition of the traditional ‘Katie Cruel’ and especially by the original number ‘Whisky, Bob Copper & Me’, a beautiful homage to English folk traditions that namechecks not only the Brit-folk patriarch of the title but also revival luminaries Shirley Collins and Davey Graham. Here (unlike on ‘Beauty’) the name-dropping sounds easy and natural, and as the unmistakable voice of Eliza Carthy swoops in on one of the verses, a host of English traditions seem to come full circle. It’s a sublimely warm and moving moment, one of many on a very fine record. Ultimately, though, it’s the sound of Thompson’s own voice, with its lovely, sincere, grave quality and subtle expressive power, that makes Versatile Heart such a compelling and enjoyable album.