Although some of Richard Thompson's best records have been collaborations — you may remember Live, Love, Larf & Loaf, his 1987 full-length with Captain Beefheart drummer John French and avant-garde guitarists Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, or 1997's superb Industry, which paired him with bassist Danny Thompson — the English guitarist and singer is such a fearsome instrumentalist and canny songwriter that he does just fine by himself. That's the case with Electric, which Thompson recorded over a few days in Nashville with producer Buddy Miller and such guests as Alison Krauss and fiddler Stuart Duncan. Thompson benefits from the company, but it's his show all the way.
Over the years, I've often found Thompson dour — he's a compelling singer, but there's something earthbound about his vocals. On the other hand, no guitarist in popular music plays variations on blues, jazz and rock with more imagination than does Thompson. Electric proves that Thompson's dourness has its sunny side, and his singing is at a peak throughout. Nearly every song shows off one or two indelible riffs, and Thompson's great subject — marriage and its discontents — finds its perfect expression in music and lyrics that are augmented by an array of mind-boggling guitar solos.
As his collaborations attest, Thompson has always been an adventurous musician, so it's not surprising that "Stuck on the Treadmill" employs syncopated guitar riffs that suggest he's been listening to Funkadelic. As he did on Industry, Thompson writes about mankind's need for work, and the economic pressures that weigh on working men: "Wish I knew a better way to keep myself," he sings, "shaking sheets of metal every day from 9 to 5."
"Sally B" sports a fierce blues-rock groove in 6/8 time, with Thompson's guitar filling the gaps. If the riffs Thompson uses in "Stuck on the Treadmill" recall those of Funkadelic guitarists Michael Hampton and Eddie Hazel, "Sally B" features a guitar solo in the mode of Jimi Hendrix — as usual, Thompson's chops and ideas are seamlessly combined.
The centerpiece of Electric is the amazing "Good Things Happen to Bad People," which benefits from a jangling guitar riff and an unforgettable hook. In this tale of reverse schadenfreude, Thompson tells the story of his marriage to a woman with a bad personality and her "hair in a brand-new 'do." It's funny, although how you respond to Thompson may depend upon your ability to appreciate his saturnine sense of humor.
Even funnier is Electric's closer, "Saving the Good Stuff for You." Once again, Thompson casts himself as a rogue — a man who "could never resist life's temptations." But he's gotten beyond all that. It's a song worthy of, say, George Jones, and it's unfortunate that the great country singer couldn't have collaborated with Thompson to make a follow-up to Jones' 1976 busted-marriage album The Battle. Thompson isn't the singer Jones is, of course, but Electric proves he can do it all — the guitar licks don't even get in the way of the songs.