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Why I Love: Zach Phillips on Richard Thompson

Zach Phillips recently released his new album, The Wine Of Youth (our review here). It was his first album in around seventeen years and takes the listener on a trip through his adopted home of California. If you’re a fan of Jackson Browne, JD Souther or the like, it will grab your attention wholeheartedly.

When asked to contribute to our Why I Love column, Zach Phillips asked if he could write about Richard Thompson. The answer was a resounding, ‘Yes!’

As one of Great Britain’s finest singers, songwriters, and all round pioneers of music, Richard Thompson (OBE no less!) is a musical hero to many. Here, Zach Phillips writes about why he loves the music of Richard Thompson.

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Richard Thompson

Like Dylan, Richard Thompson is an artist who defies passive listening. There’s the outlandish guitar talent; the soulful, idiosyncratic singing; the old-world-meets-new-world musicality (accordion anyone?). But that’s not what caused me to do a double-take the first time I heard him.

It was the songs.

It was the perfectly rendered melodies and lyrics. It was the ruminations of an old soul who knows how to conjure his every past life, and tell its tale in four minutes. It was the insider’s knowledge of the human condition, maybe the universe itself. One minute, we are spiritual seekers; the next, we are dying criminals, promising a girlfriend our prized motorbike as a final wish. But no matter. For Thompson, that’s all part of the game. Life is serious, even grave, but most of all … life is incredibly amusing. And fast. And by God, you’re going to listen when he sings about it. I defy you not to.

Because there’s also the way he turns a phrase. No one uses the element of surprise like him. This alone could be the topic of a graduate-level course in English literature.

Let me ride on the wall of death one more time

Sounds pretty bleak … until you realize he’s talking about a carnival ride. Or marriage. Or reincarnation. Because in the Richard Thompson multiverse, nothing is what it seems. Your lover does the “backstreet slide” with the next-door neighbor. Only that’s not what stings the most. It’s the gossip, the lies, the way they stab you in the back — and with a “kitchen knife” nonetheless! Sometimes, love hurts.

Speaking of love, it would be a crime not to mention the impossible beauty of his music. The first time I heard “Dimming Of The Day.” I sat in my car, immobile for 20 minutes. My response, no doubt, was amplified by ex-wife Linda Thompson’s vocal performance — that wise, knowing, vulnerable voice. Together, they were a musical duo with soft hearts and sharp swords. They sang of hardship, they didn’t suffer fools gladly, but they’d always take you back in. They were funny, too. And on the topic of Linda, is there a better prayer in the English language than her demo of “First Light”? A sadder track than “Withered & Died”? A more plaintive cry of marital despair than “Walking On A Wire”? Nothing comes to mind.

And no discussion of Richard Thompson would be complete without talking about him as a guitarist. So much has been written about this — the Celtic influence, the vibrato, his renunciation of the blues scale, the way he parlays all that talent into a powerhouse one-man acoustic act. I’ll just add that my favorite guitarists are also great songwriters. They seem to have an intuitive understanding of how to use the guitar solo to keep building the song, as opposed to offering reprieve from it. And Thompson’s every quicksilver riff tells the song’s story as much as the lyrics. Not to mention he always delivers it with a shrug. “Oh that?” he seems to say. “Funny. It’s the first time I’ve ever played that.”

I had the honor of meeting Richard Thompson five years ago. I was nervous — he knew it — but he treated me like a fellow man of the trade. We talked shop. I told him the solo on “Why Must I Plead” is among my favorite 55 seconds in recorded music. He nodded, then shifted to teacher mode. “Ah yes, that solo. That solo is all about space.”

Space. The final frontier. The unknowable. The breath between the notes.

You’d better believe I started to underplay after that.

Many thanks to Zach Phillips for his wonderful words on Richard Thompson. ‘Thommo’ is truly one of the greatest singer/songwriters ever. As a part of Fairport Convention, with Linda Thompson, on his own…a true genius.

Watch Zach Phillips video for Stranded In The Night below. You can also connect with Zach via his website.

Zach Phillips:  Website

Read more from the Why I Love archive, here.

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