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Album: Richard Thompson - Ship to Shore | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Richard Thompson - Ship to Shore

Album: Richard Thompson - Ship to Shore

The master and commander of misery and despair casts off into the deep once more

Any Richard Thompson appearance comes with a hallmark guaranteeing quality produce – be that an album or a stage show. 

Indeed, Thompson's 75th birthday concert will land on 8 June at the Royal Albert Hall, with a dazzling range of musical guests to rival the same venue’s epic 70th birthday bash five years ago. Meanwhile, it’s been six years since his last album, 13 Rivers, an album he described on its release as “coming to me as a surprise in a dark time”.

Dark times, you say? All rivers meet their end when they meet the sea, and Ship to Shore, featuring the same line-up of players in drummer Michael Jerome, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and guitarist Bobby Eichorn (with guests David Mansfield on fiddle and backing vocals from Thompson’s partner, Zara Phillips) has pulled up anchor to set sail into the stormy waters of a sea of troubles to haunt all those it encounters, a la the Flying Dutchman.

No one puts misery to music as ably as Thompson. Right from the off he proves a master and commander of that art, with the opening lines of “Freeze” – “Another day without a dream, without a hope, without a scheme, another day that finds you crawling on your knees”. That’s another way of describing wet Wednesdays.

The following “The Fear Never Leaves You” comes with a softer musical edge, and a finely measured guitar solo surrounding lines like “if I could unsee the things I’ve seen [you can’t]”, while “Singapore Sadie” featuring Mansfield’s distinctive fiddle, is a character piece with the contrast and colour turned up high, and a chorus that rises and falls like a tide: “Her love is a mystical thing, I swear I hear the choirs celestial sing, her love doesn’t come every day, it comes like a bolt from the blue”. Sadie sounds like she once shared a pad with the subject of Thompson classic “Beeswing” before sailing her own untameable seas. There are a number of such figures - archetypes, I suppose - sprinkled through Thompson’s song book.

Discord, violence, cruelty, vindictiveness, envy, hate, despair, treachery: you’ll find all these in Shakespeare’s History plays, and they’re all present and correct on Thompson’s Ship to Shore, too, even if the crew has long run out of ship’s biscuits, even the ginger nuts, and the cabin boy has been cured and strung up as biltong, drying under a pitiless sun. “The Old Pack Mule” is especially harsh, lyrically, while musically, there’s a lot of bounce and – dare I say it – joy to be had, as tight as the ensemble is, and in the guitar work, which has never failed him and never will, it seems.

While songs like “Trust” and “Lost in the Crowd” wander off from me, musically, there’s much to keep you taut and focused, especially when we get to the closing “What’s Left to Lose” with an uplift of melody in its chorus giving the song buoyancy, however heavy the seas prove to be, while the closer, “We Roll”, sounds like a paean to the road, to being a musician with a case pulling out of the layby once again. It’s no Willie Nelson, who’s “On The Road Again” must be the ultimate song on this road, but it’s meaty, beaty, bouncy and with more Dave Mansfield fiddle, a warmer, softer landing point for listeners who’ve held on tight and true through this album’s heavy weather and murky, wreck-filled depths. In short, Ship to Shore is classic Thompson, the songster of misery and despair who doesn’t often change that tune while always delivering something tasty, fresh and new.

Richard Thompson's 75th birthday bash is at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 8 June

@CummingTim

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