I used to be quite insufferable. I know, I know...
I used to pride myself in knowing about artists and bands before they were big. Like U2 and REM - especially REM and everything associated with them (more on that on another day). I was so ahead of the pack that, well, there was no one cooler than I was at my college radio station.
Did I say insufferable. Oh ya, and in retrospect, I apologize to friends and family who had to put up with my self-righteous music snobby-pants puff puff posing.
Well, I wasn't totally cool or I would have found Richard and Linda Thompson before I discovered REM. But in a backwards cool, REM pointed me to them. You see, I was eating up every artist who influenced Berry Buck Mills Stipe, or who they talked about in underground music rags, bands like Love Tractor, the dBs, Pylon...and Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights.
I bought it, dropped the needle on the first track and... GIDDY UP!
"Don't Renege on Our Love" galloped out of my speakers with a sound I'd never heard before. How did that guitar have such cracking technicality to it, yet sound so melodic? The song - and the record, ultimately - could not be classified. Was it rock? Folk? Alternative? Country? Yes and no to all of those genres. You see, Richard Thompson music IS a class of its own.
And when Linda's voice is added to the mix, well hell, we're at another level! No other woman has been able to sing Richard's songs like she did on this album, or any other R&L Thompson album for that matter (in fact it was hard to keep their earlier album, Pour Down Like Silver, off my list for Linda's unmatched vocals on "Dimming of the Day" alone, but a girl's gotta make a choice!) "Walking on a Wire" and "Just the Motion" are beautiful, they're almost ballads, but not ballads as there is nothing saccharine about them. They are filled with sadness and the pain of breaking up, carried by drifting melodies that never waiver.
This was their last album together before they divorced. Sigh.
The tension of their deteriorating relationship is palpable on these and all the songs on the album. The title track is almost a dirge with a beat, yet it explodes with fireworks and sparks of guitar riffs that are both tasty and frightening. Richard's voice growls through the song, hmm, I'm painting it as a deep dark thing, but at the same time, I'm tapping my toes to it.
I think that has a lot to do with the great production by Joe Boyd on this record. With all the intricate guitar work and the haunting vocals by both R&L, the album is uncluttered, the arrangements are clean. It's an ironic mix, really, as there must have been so much emotion and tension in the studio that Boyd let the recording be just as raw, letting the blemishes show rather than brushed by over-production (like Gerry Rafferty's first mix of these songs two years earlier...but again, that's another story.)
The record ends with a song that first time around, sounds hopeful. A really sing-along-able tune that you want to learn on your guitar so you can sing it in three-part harmony with your pals around the campfire...and then you listen to the lyrics:
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it's the nearest to being free
Oh sure, "Wall of Death" is a hopeful song in the way a holiday with the Grim Reaper is hopeful! But it's a great tune, covered by many people who could never capture the collusion of love and pain the way R&L did.
So while this record is painful to listen to on an emotional level, it's also a treat because EVERY song is so great. I've gone back and bought everything else by R&L, but there's something about the first one I found...when I wasn't nearly as cool as I thought I was.
Released: April 1982
Recorded: November 1981, Olympic Studios, London
Producer: Joe Boyd