Friday, 5 April 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 27 I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 27 
I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight - Richard and Linda Thompson
"High up above the crowd
The great Valerio is walking
The rope seems hung from cloud to cloud
And time stands still while he is walking"

On a  guitar string strung vertiginously high between the twin poles of hymn and hurt Richard and Linda Thompson here perform one of music's great balancing acts, creating from the depths of depression an album which acknowledges despair but yet celebrates the tightrope walker. Moments of tear-glittering beauty twinkle in this dark night of the soul. Voices and guitars, accordions, dulcimers and krummhorns blend into a texture at once ancient and startlingly modern.

The album is suffused with a desire for death, or a sense that life is nothing but a series of poor illusions, and that death will be a release. The first song When I Get To The Border sees death as an escape from the  tedious mundanity of life ("Monday morning, Monday morning, closing in on me") There is also a sense of an escape, like bandits crossing the Mexican border in a western. it celebrates Thompson's belief in the indestructibility of the human spirit.

"If you see a box of pine
With a name that looks like mine
Just say I drowned in a barrel of wine
When I got to the border"

Richard Thompson was only 25 when this album was released, but he had been through the wringer, in particular the crash that had killed his girlfriend and Fairport Convention's drummer and injured Thompson and other Fairport Conventioneers. You don't recover from that sort of trauma quickly, if you ever do. He has put away childish things, as St Paul / Saul (who is name-checked on Poor Little Beggar Girl) once wrote in a letter.

The album which had followed that crash was Liege and Lief, which has already made an appearance on this list. It was an album on which death made it's appearance, particularly in the supreme version of the murder ballad Matty Groves. Here the songs are not traditional, they are all written by Thompson and though they draw on and echo with a sense of tradition and communal experience they are also a very personal exploration of his state of mind. Here are some lyrics from We'll Sing Alleluia, and once again the tension between celebration and despair are evident.
"A man, he's like a briar
He covers himself with thorns
He laughs like a clown when his fortune's down
And his clothes are ragged and torn"

"And we'll sing hallelujah
At the turning of the year
And we work all day in the old fashioned way
'Till the shining star appears

A man, he's like his father
Wishes he was never born
He longs for the time when the clock will chime
And he's dead for evermore"

They make me think of the following lines from Yeats:
"An aged man is but a paltry thing, 
A tattered coat upon a stick, 
unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing 
For every tatter in its mortal dress"

I love every song on this album, even the profoundly grim The End of the Rainbow, where the singer offers some advice to a newborn babe:
"Life seems so rosy in the cradle
but I'll be a friend, I'll tell you what's in store
There's nothing at the end of the rainbow
There's nothing to grow up for anymore"
But then again I'm the sort of person who's counsellor asks him to cheer up so I can be diagnosed with clinical depression. Others may balk when confronted with the depths and peaks which are the landscape of this record.

Has He Got a Friend For Me takes extreme sexual loneliness ("Saturday night and I'm all alone
No ring on the door bell, no ring on the phone / And nobody wants to know anyone lonely like me") and turns it into a gospel tinged plea for somebody/anybody: "I don't mind going with someone that I've never seen."

As it says in Withered and Died
"I've only sad stories to tell to this town
My dreams have withered and died"

The title track is often cited as lifting the mood of the album but that's only a surface view. The song is a celebration of Friday night, of hitting the town to try and bury thoughts of weekday life:
"A couple of drunken nights rolling on the floor
Is just the kind of mess I'm looking for
I'm gonna dream 'till Monday comes in sight
I want to see the bright lights tonight"
The darkness is merely cut with some alcohol. This celebration of drinking wildly while wishing for death has perhaps only been matched by Shane McGowan in Fairytale of New York. Similar uses of marching bands in the middle of both songs suggest that McGowan may have listened to this?  Certainly there are a few songs here that would have fit into The Pogues repetoire although Thompson deals more with archetypes without the hard edged realism on McGowan's finest songs.

Songs I haven't mentioned yet? The Calvary Cross, where Thompson's guitar, particularly on extended live versions, provides a template for the guitars on Marquee Moon. It seems to suggest a religious awakening of sorts.
"And why don't you follow
My claw's in you and my light's in you
This is your first day of sorrow"

Closing song The Great Valerio, which I have to admit it took a while to click with me, highlight's Linda Thompson's voice. There are moment's of astonishing singing on this, where she manages an almost cold precision which reverberates with huge emotional strength and the weakness that requires that strength.

"But we learn to watch together,
And feed on what we see above
'Till our hearts turn like the seasons
And we are acrobats of love"

This is only number 27 due to my inability to really make difficult choices, and a scattershot approach which means that many albums are listed where they fell rather than where they were put.


  1. I probably wore out the grooves of "Shoot Out the Lights" ahead of this, but not by much. Thanks for pointing out the similarity with McGowan...something I've noted under my breath to nobody that cares.

    I was happy to hear the title track in "Looper", although I don't see it on the soundtrack. And "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" resonates for me many times over...especially in the adaptation of Joseph Roth's "The Legend of the Holy Drinker"...I'll stop there!

  2. Sorry for the additional comment, but something I missed the first time through. Thompson was only 25 when this was released? Good God.

    1. He had actually only turned 24 when it was recorded. Ah, callow youth.

  3. The twin poles of hymn and hurt
    Tear-glittering beauty
    I'm on the 'steal' again Seamus...
    A 24 year old writing 'there's nothing to grow up for anymore'?
    He was a curmudgeon before his time.
    A wonderfully miserable album; I'm partial to a bit of 'hey nonny nonny' and love the traditional language that permeates the folk scene; a sense of Olde England/Britain that lingers without a whiff of BNP. Martin Simpson, Kate Rusby, Kris Drever and Chris Wood seem to be flying the flag with grace and no little wit.
    And here when the mordant imagery refuses to relent the relief?
    A savage guitar solo that parts your hair and breaks your heart.
    You can run but you can't hide from the misery here. Glorious stuff...

    1. The word I didn't use but should have is 'endurance', which is, I guess, one of the positive feelings that suffuses this album. I think I actually did the whole self-crucifixion and doomed romanticism in my early twenties, too. I'm a bit too broken down to take such ideas too seriously anymore, but I still appreciate the memories.