It's the rare songwriter who deserves the box-set treatment, but with the release of Walking On a Wire Richard Thompson now has three. Certainly, the British singer-songwriter merits such study, as he's one of music's most intriguing lyricists and inventive guitarists. And it's been sixteen years since his last true career retrospective, the three-CD set Watching the Dark, so there's plenty of new material to digest.
Thompson isn't the most inviting singer, but during the 1960s and 1970s he burnished his sandpapery folk rock by harmonizing with Sandy Denny and his then-wife Linda. This early material provides most of the first two discs of Walking, and it's near perfect — full of serpentine guitar solos and emotionally vivid lyrics. Following his 1983 divorce from Linda, Thompson went solo, and his albums grew uneven, vacillating between acerbic rockers like "Valerie" and "I Feel So Good" and dull slogs like "Mingus Eyes." And yet, such inconsistency makes Thompson the perfect target for the best-of treatment, and Disc Three is a rollicking good time, replete with his loosest, funniest material.
Things go awry in Disc Four, as Thompson's songwriting dips into cliché and banality, leaving his vocal limitations more noticeable than ever. Various projects — a concept album about the Industrial Revolution, covers of favorite songs of the last 1000 years, the Grizzly Man soundtrack — fail to inspire greatness, although the Iraq conflict does offer up the fearful "Dad's Gonna Kill Me." But even with the stumbles, Walking On a Wire showcases how fascinating he can be. (Shout Factory)
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