Richard Thompson’s underrated fan fave Mirror Blue at 25
By the early 1990s, veteran British singer, songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson had, after a quarter of a century in the biz, finally reached a sort of stardom. His 1991 album Rumour & Sigh introduced the world to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a riveting solo acoustic tune about outlaw bikers and the women who love them. The song includes many of Thompson’s standard themes: doomed romance, defiance of convention, death. Besides breaking Thompson on triple-A radio, it would become, of all things, a bluegrass standard once covered by genre stars the Del McCoury Band, and it remains a fixture of his setlists to this day.
The album from which it comes was the third Thompson recorded in partnership with Mitchell Froom, the former Ronnie Montrose sideman who launched a prolific production career after scoring a hit in the late eighties with Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” During the pair’s ten-year, five-album collaboration, Froom was often been accused of glossing up Thompson’s sound – watering it down in order to appeal to American radio. While it’s certainly true that Froom smoothed the edges of Thompson’s British Isles-derived Englishness, it’s unfair, at least to this writer, to accuse the producer of screwing up his artist’s music. After all, Thompson’s songs draw as much from Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan as they do from the U.K. folk music with which he’s so intimately familiar, and he’s not above bringing in elements from other cultures – a rhythm from Madagascar here, a lick from an ancient Chinese folk tune there. Froom may have couched Thompson’s songs in a warm envelope of foamy organ and crackling drums, but the idiosyncracies that make Thompson so distinctive never fell by the wayside.
That’s especially true with Mirror Blue, the 1994 follow-up to Rumour & Sigh. No doubt Thompson’s label Capitol Records expected R&S Pt. 2 in order to keep the momentum going. That’s not what they got. Thompson wasn’t interested in merely repeating the same formula, and while it would be a mistake to claim Blue is a radical change, it’s still different enough from R&S to cause consternation at the time with his label and, surprisingly, with his staunchest allies: rock critics.
Engaging ex-Attraction Pete Thomas in the drummer’s chair, Thompson and Froom contrived to change the way the rhythm would be conveyed on this record. Thomas rarely played a full kit, sometimes – even often – leaving out the obvious accoutrements like snare, cymbals and backbeat. That approach leaves the rhythm fluid instead of static, flexible instead of rigid. It’s perfectly suited to experimental, droning songs like “I Ride in Your Slipstream” and “Easy There, Steady Now,” giving them a jazz feel that’s reminiscent of Thompson peers like John Martyn. But it also works for the straightforward rockers, adding a lightness to “I Can’t Wake Up to Save My Life” and “Shane and Dixie” without diminishing their energy. Amongst all this rhythmic R&D, Thompson’s guitar stings and scars as always, cutting through everything around it in its quest to drill right down to any listener’s core.
No matter how much futzing with the arrangements and production happens, though, a Thompson album is always about the songs, and Mirror Blue is crammed with great ones. “I Can’t Wake Up to Save My Life” posits romantic un-bliss in terms of a nightmare, throwing lines like “You squeeze too hard, you insist on kissing/When it seems like half your face is missing” at the most straightforward rock & roll on the record. “Shane & Dixie” freshens up the “two-bit crooks” in love routine, alternating black humor and stark tragedy over a pre-Beatles rock beat and a catchy chorus proclaiming “Fame and love will never die.” Speaking of creepy love, Thompson embodies obsession on the strangely keyed drone rocker “I Ride in Your Slipstream,” making for one especially unsettling stalker. On the face of it, “MGB-GT” sounds like just another rocker about a car, but the lyrics’ attachment to the circular, oddly-cadenced music that Thompson once called “an unwieldy Scottish dance tune” makes it something else. “The Way That It Shows” and “Mingus Eyes” go for intensity over easy sales, while even the throwaways “Fast Food” and “Mascara Eyes” still have strong hooks to recommend them. The doomed romance reminiscence in the lovely, melancholy “Beeswing” gives Thompson another standard to add to his live repertoire.
“Easy There, Steady Now” may be the record’s apex. Riding an elastic rhythm anchored by guest Danny Thompson’s rubbery double bass, Thompsons pumps out licks that sound almost Middle Eastern in origin – if Django Reinhardt hailed from that country, that is. He responds to the jazz-informed backdrop with hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness lyrics – “Jackknife with a precious load/Spills its guts all over the road” – before getting to the (broken) heart of the matter: “I call your name/I call it loud/I see your face/In every crowd.” No matter how strange things get for the characters in Thompson’s universe, heartbreak is never far away. “Taking My Business Elsewhere” ends the record on its gentlest note, taking Thompson’s shattered emotional state out with a smoky ballad.
Despite what seems like obvious quality, the critics of the time turned their noses up at Mirror Blue. Maybe it was because of the lack of a clear rock rhythmic center; perhaps it was because they felt Froom’s production had become stifling. Perhaps they simply felt it was time to take Thompson, a perpetual critic’s darling on par with Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, down a peg or two. To these ears, they were simply wrong. Twenty-five years away from its release and the early nineties/triple-A radio jailhouse in which it was kept, Mirror Blue feels not like a failed experiment, but like one of Richard Thompson’s strongest albums.