Thankfully, the album is not all "electric" (some of his finest acoustic playing and vocals reside here), yet the emotions are indeed electric, regardless of their setting. Producer Buddy Miller apparently didn't want to skip over any of Thompson's skills, so Electric features virtually every aspect of his immense talent: Resonant, very "British" singing, lovely unplugged songs, and his amped up, often sizzling playing. Sometimes Thompson's guitar work rides a spacious wave of sound, with that beautiful jangle that he began to perfect when he and former wife Linda were making some of the most unfairly neglected records of the 1970s (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight) and 1980s (Shoot Out the Lights). Elsewhere, Miller employs a grungier attack, where Thompson's guitar almost fights the surrounding instruments to great effect (he's not all over the fretboard; instead, he bends strings and evokes a kind of tension that sneaks up on you).
Ultimately, the songs are what makes Electric so successful. "Stuck on a Treadmill" has
a tidy, renaissance period-meets-rock structure that's quite appealing in spite of its
well-worn subject matter ("the robot looks at me as if to say, 'I'll be doing doing your job someday' "). "Good Things Happen to Bad People" pulls no punches when it comes to assessing a dubious character: "You cried the day I walked you down the aisle/and I know you've been bad...from the way you smile." The song's huge sweep and soaring harmonies--geez, I'd be bragging even if all I came up with was that sparkling riff--might have had a chance on rock radio back in the day when the airwaves provided more opportunities.
When he co-founded Fairport Convention so long ago, Thompson's instrumental prowess and choice of outside material (the group's 1968 debut included songs by
Joni Mitchell and Emmit Rhodes, after all) perfectly balanced each other. By the time of Fairport's second album (What We Did On Our Holidays), his songwriting was already approaching what the Band's Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were creating.
It's been decades since Thompson's writing moved beyond graceful, and that goes for Electric's quietest, most haunting tunes, "My Enemy" and "Saving the Good Stuff for You." The former concerns a love he may have gotten over, though a stained pysche remains. The latter reveals how earlier, horrific times may unwittingly benefit a person years later, when they've finally discovered the right partner, a message that connects with one of his biggest fans.
Although I've yet to hear the deluxe edition (two CDs), Electric grabbed my favor right away and will undoubtably be there when I'm figuring out my year-end favorite records. Richard Thompson turns 64 next week; truly, the man has not lost a step.