British folk-rocker Richard Thompson has written enough brilliant songs -- shot through with wit, bruised with sadness, glimmering with absurdly good musicianship -- that he's been praised by Elvis Costello, Lou Reed and David Byrne, and his work has been covered by R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., Shawn Colvin and Bob Mould.
But ask Thompson about his satisfaction with his songs, and the answer sounds like a riff on Platonic ideals and the limitations of our lot in life. "I think that sometimes when you conceive of a song," says Thompson, "you hear it in your head almost as if it's in a dream, and it never sounds that good again. When it's in this very abstract form that you can't quite grasp, you can't quite nail it, I don't think it ever sounds that good again. As soon as you start getting to real notes and real words, it becomes to some extent mundane."
It might be precisely that out-of-reachness that causes Thompson to use words like "mysterious" and "endlessly magical" when talking about songwriting. This from a man who's been at it for more than 30 years.
Thompson began his career in the late '60s with the group Fairport Convention, who revived moldy traditional British and Celtic fare the same way that Dylan was buzzing up grainy old-time folk ballads. In the '70s and early '80s Thompson and his then-wife Linda recorded a handful of sometimes quaint, often transporting albums, including the terrain-scorched "Shoot Out the Lights," which landed on a list of the 100 best-ever albums that Rolling Stone once arbitrarily compiled. Since then, Thompson's solo career has been the stuff of a small, rabid fan base and intermittent sightings on the larger-screen cultural radar.
"What I've done has been really in spite of the record industry and in spite of radio," he says of his career. "It's been mostly through word of mouth and a small amount of print. You know, not that many people actually -- I think it's only 10 percent or something of people who buy music who read about it first."
Indeed, solidifying an audience has been a "long, slow process," as he puts it. "It's more of a troubadour process," he says of his approach. "I like to think of it as rock music through a folk process. I'm the guy who comes to town, sings a few songs and leaves, and comes around a year later."
But those who have seen him as he passes through a town, either alone or with a band in tow, tend to have an eyebrow-raising experience that sticks hard and converts people into spread-the-good-news disciples. After all, Thompson's songs can quiver with a memorable tenderness that's poignant but still clear-eyed. On "Beeswing," included on his latest CD, "Action Packed: The Best of the Capitol Years," a young woman, described as "a rare thing/ Fine as a bee's wing/ So fine a breath of wind might blow her away," ages into a faded drunk, prompting the line, "Maybe that's the price you pay/ For the chains that you refuse."
"Beeswing" lilts with evocatively austere Northumbrian pipes and beautiful acoustic-guitar picking to match its mood of dusk-hour regret. Like a good troubadour, he's always ready to add a coat of gloom; his songbook is littered with references to death or titles like "Never Again." "I think sometimes you have to get to bleak," he offers. "That doesn't mean that life is bleak or you are bleak, but everybody hits those points. That's why you sing the blues -- to make yourself feel better sometimes."
"Action Packed" also has a good dose of Thompson's amped-up, if not exactly raucous, fare. There's nothing quite like the compact, magnificent bends and sways of his electric-guitar playing. Nonetheless, when he plays solo acoustic, as he will Saturday, May 23, at Sapphire, he's so accomplished you'd be forgiven for thinking that there's another guitarist hidden somewhere from view.
With ongoing swoons from loyal fans and critics, has Thompson in some respect found his niche in the music industry? "God, I hope not," he laughs. "I always saw myself as much richer and more famous."