It’s always a cause for celebration when a new Richard Thompson album comes out. An artist who has rarely put a foot wrong over a 50 year career, he’s one of those touchstones (a bit like Nick Lowe or Loudon Wainwright) who constantly remind one of what great song writing is all about. 13 Rivers follows on from the two volumes of Acoustic Classics, which found Thompson revisiting his back catalogue, and the Jeff Tweedy produced Still which stands up as perhaps his best album over the past decade and a half.
13 Rivers doesn’t have the light and shade of Still, being more of a rock album with the sterling work of drummer Michael Jerome very much driving the songs along as bassist Taras Prodaniuk lays down solid bedrock. Meanwhile Thompson’s guitar slashes and burns on several of the numbers, sometimes duelling with guitarist Bobby Eichorn, and recalling some of the more fiery moments on 2013’s Electric. In addition, there’s a dark undercurrent flowing through the album with Thompson saying that he wrote the songs in “A dark time.” His troubles aren’t specified but from the portentous and roiling album opener, The Storm Won’t Come, to the closing Shaking The Gates, a melancholic number which recalls his very early works, there’s a sense of doom embedded throughout. It’s most pronounced on the excellent My Rock, My Rope where Thompson seems to be clinging by his fingernails over a bottomless abyss. Bones of Gilead, despite its spritely delivery, has a biblical like bloodiness to it while The Dog In You growls over a slow blues like beat as Thompson offers a damning exposition of the song subject’s failings.
Although there’s a great deal of bile and rancour here Thompson keeps a firm hand on the tiller as the band weld together creating some scintillating sounds. Perhaps the most savage song, Pride, sparkles with Eichorn’s guitar flourishes and there’s even a hint of Carry On comedy as Thompson sings the words, “Infamy, infamy.” It’s very tempting to consider 13 Rivers a break up album but overall it’s sufficient to appreciate that Thompson has always flourished when he’s down at the dark end of the street. When he can summon up such a perfect burst of rock music as on The storm Won’t Come – a song which could have sat easily on Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On – it’s maybe just best to sit back and let the storm burst over you.