Teddy Thompson solves his influences and finally makes a great album
Artist: Teddy Thompson
Album: Heartbreaker Please
Label: Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
It’s hard enough in life to find your way without beginning your career in darkness.
For while being famous progeny gets your foot in the door – which should never be discounted in a music industry where even letting people know who you are has grown exponentially more difficult – it comes with knotty complications as to identity.
Everyone grapples with who they are growing up, but not everyone has to also grapple with who they are not. When the shadow cast is as long as Richard and Linda Thompson, it takes a while to escape its perimeter. In that vein, Teddy moved to Los Angeles to start his career in 2000, after backing his Dad’s band for at least half a dozen years. He wound up in New York and spent time in the early aughts collaborating with the Wainwrights (Rufus and Martha).
It’s unclear how much Thompson’s tastes were informed by that time, but he’s retained a consistent interest in baroque pop balladry, and he has a fine voice, though it sounds better delivering great melodicism than conveying emotion. Thompson has a strong roots background from his folk-inflected parents but has at times struggled to combine the two. One of his best releases was 2007’s Upfront & Down Low, an album of straight country covers, but it’s a sound his solo albums rarely choose.
While clearly a fine musician with a good ear, he’s had trouble translating that consistently. Songs have popped up along the way, such as the pretty bald-facedly passive-aggressive confession “I Wish It Was Over” and “The Things I Do,” which is notably honest and self-deprecating, wondering at his own behavior. More often he’s settled for cheap (as in unearned emotionally) love songs – either expressions of devotion or contemplation of an incipient ending.
But there’s only be so much pathos to be wrung from good-looking, love struck/starved progeny of famous stars. Nothing made this clearer than the regrettable “Looking for a Girl” (lead track off 2011’s Bella). Who can’t relate to wanting the ones you can’t have, while other girls throw themselves at you? Well, when Thompson cites the actress on TV and the model in the magazine spread as the ones he can’t have, it doesn’t come off as torture so much as privileged pique. Is there a level above “First World Problems”?
Though the torchy, pretty baroque Bella did pretty well (#42 in the UK charts) it was steep fall from 2008’s A Piece of What You Needed, which cracked the UK top 10 (he’s never found much traction in the states), and musically it was a cold fish. Rufus can pull this stuff off, but Thompson doesn’t emote well enough to make such remote orchestral music ring in the heart and not just the ears.
That was the last solo album Thompson cut. He did an album with his sister and parents, 2014’s Family, and in 2016 recorded Little Windows with Kelly Jones. While good, it didn’t do much to quicken the pulse.
That ends with Heartbreaker Please, an album that makes you sit up straight in much the same spirit as Ryan Adams’ 2000 breakout Heartbreaker. Sonically, it’s cut from similar clothe as Justin Townes Earle’s Midnight at the Movies – a warm nostalgic postcard to the classic pop/rock of the fifties and sixties, a somewhat more roots-minded neighborhood than the one where Chris Isaak’s been holed up for years. Even better, Thompson comes much closer to finding a songwriting voice, allowing wit and self-reflection to displace some of the less convincing emoting of his earlier works.
It feels like the album you make a couple years AFTER the breakup, when the distance allows for a wryer, more caustic take on one’s misfortune.
Maybe the best example of this is the arresting country-torch (think Roy Orbison) “At a Light,” which suggests that memories of him will catch his ex-lover unaware. It’s strangely stalker-ish, quite frankly: “One day soon when you’re all alone at a light/You’re gonna miss me, oh-oh/A heartbreaker from the radio is gonna find you/Like an arrow, oh-oh.” Indeed, it feels transgressive enough to draw attention to the desperation of the obsession, and the rather creepy (if entirely human) desire for the leaving love to feel regret long after it’s over.
The album opens with another offbeat love take, this one featuring a big sixties soul horn section. Thompson ponders the value of clinging to a lover with one foot out the door; if it’s only heading for heartbreak, “Why Wait?” Suffice to say, there’s a huge shortage of songs advocating ripping off the band-aid, romantically speaking: “There is love in this world for you to find/And there is love you must leave behind.”
Focusing on the lyrical content is not to shade the songs themselves, which are really catchy, propulsive tunes that feel nicely out of character for a guy that all too recently was heavy on the ballads.
The title track is a fairly pat longing tune, where Thompson wants her back despite the pain she caused, but even here doesn’t let the tempo slip or the instrumentation to get too deep. Simple sentiments are often best expressed simply. “Brand New” is the type of self-consciously arty, moody mid-tempo modern pop that Rufus can nail and Thompson just can’t seem to divorce from “trite” and “meh”.
What’s nuts is that the rest of the album almost to a track (the melodramatic five minute-plus anguish of “No Idea”) is better than those two.
The seventies-style pop-funk (complete with keyboard jam in the break), “What Now,” wrestles with the pull-and-tug of a relationship, where he’s “just waiting for a solid ending not a reset.” He alludes to his guilt as opposed to confessing his infidelity, singing, “It only happens now, when you’re miles away/And it only happens now, when I’m lonely/See the world is a cold place, don’t mess with what you can’t replace.”
“Record Player” is arguably the catchiest tune Thompson has ever written and may be the album’s highlight. The boisterous fifties paean complete with backing doo-wop girl vocals is a mash letter to the music that informed his youth, the closest thing to a universal sentiment he’s ever attempted. He wonders at what an outcast he is, “Is it only in my head and my record player?” Obviously just making a song like this is a rally call reinforcing how common the sentiment is.
“It’s Not Easy” is a hopped-up fifties-pop tune of the type Billy Joel made for a minute when he was really proud of his New Jersey roots and the fact that he was really really old. It’s pretty catchy, and has a strong chorus that sticks with you. “Take Me Away” is the album’s most distinctive song, a sea-shanty shaped dirge/drinking song with a calliope kind of gait, which comes pretty close to pulling off a kind of English dance hall poo-bah baroque thing in Rufus’s style. It’s sort of dark, but also inviting (the part that’s harder to nail).
VIDEO: Teddy Thompson “Brand New”
The album closes strongly with the dark claustrophobia of “Move at Speed,” which imagines a young family crisis at its most fevered pitch. It opens, “Hold the baby on your knee, like you mean it, like you care/Fight the feeling to be free; you aren’t going anywhere,” dropping the listener in the middle of a fraught, complicated situation, much like its characters. It doesn’t move much from there, but that doesn’t matter – a book needs the character to change, a song only needs to sketch the dilemma keenly. In the end what choice is there but to forge forward and fight the urge to flee? That feeling is a song.
There was barest indication that Thompson would turn into a real talent. He’s got the tools, but has never put them together for a whole album, and recognized his weaknesses enough to lean into his strengths. Except for the five-minute misstep there’s not a song over four-minutes and half the ten tracks are three-minutes or under (give or take a couple seconds).
Thompson’s learning the power of economy and his songcraft has increased immeasurably. He’s still behind Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell, two of the better roots-loving-but-pan-stylistic songwriters of the moment, but this really solid, well written, performed and produced album suggests he’s capable of similar artistic and commercial success. (Special props go to the playing of Chris Robinson Brotherhood / Rufus Wainwright bassist Jeff Hill.)
We often think of it as a track to success, but what if it’s just a dirt oval around some hay bails and there’s more to the yard than that? If so, the best reports will come from those that head off road to see where it takes them, and after circling the same four corners at his own pace for a couple decades, Thompson seems ready to see what else is out there.