Linda Thompson recorded seven brilliant Celtic-tinged albums in the ’70s and early ’80s with then-husband Richard, culminating in Shoot Out the Lights, one of the most devastating divorce albums ever recorded and a hallmark of British folk-rock music. An overly slick solo debut followed in 1985, and she promptly disappeared from sight, the victim of a stage fright so oppressive that she literally lost her voice.
Accordingly, Fashionably Late, her first album in a very long 17 years, may be the most ironic album title of the year. Then again, it may simply be the best album of the year. It would be hard to find another album from 2002 that is as well written and as beautifully sung as this one. Replace the lights, and shine them on this reclusive star. Late or not, Linda Thompson deserves to be in the spotlight, all by herself.
Those familiar with the old Richard and Linda albums already know that she is a marvelous singer. Seventeen years have only deepened her richly textured alto. On a showcase piece like the harrowing traditional- her voice is a gloriously supple instrument capable of summoning up a world of anger, bitterness, world-weariness, pathos, and resignation. Quite simply, Linda Thompson has the kind of miles-deep soulfulness that few have had before her. Those looking for a reprise of the traditional English folk sound of "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" will be delighted with vengeance-filled murder ballads such as "Nine Stone Rig," and then might be astonished to note that the song was written by Linda and son Teddy. Indeed, mother and son wrote nine of the album’s 10 tracks, and Teddy’s guitar and vocals are featured prominently throughout the album. Linda only strays from the folk template once, on the eerily lovely "Paint and Powder Beauty," which sounds like a ’30s Cole Porter or Jerome Kern show tune, complete with lush string arrangements. But sorrow and death in the grand English folk song tradition dominate these songs. The words may be fresh and new, but they sound as ancient as the pastoral Yorkshire countryside. And although there’s a dark edge to much of this music, there’s humor too, as in the lament "Weary Life," where the long-married narrator wishes that she had taken the sports car and he had taken the kids, and which contains the classic couplet: "You want a young girl to carry you off to bed/But you still need me to scratch your wooden leg." There’s not a weak song on the album.
Along the way, a veritable who’s who of Celtic music shows up to lend a hand: Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle alumni come out to play and sing, while next-generation luminaries such as Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy, Kathryn Tickell, and Rufus Wainwright all lend their considerable talents. Best of all, the entire dysfunctional Thompson family—ma, pa, and kids Teddy and Kamila—shows up on the melodic opener "Dear Mary," including ex-husband Richard, who turns in harmony vocals and some trademark swirling guitar licks. It’s not the full-album Richard and Linda Thompson reunion for which many of us had hoped, but the song is glorious in its own right. Those harmony vocals are enough to remind even the most jaded listener of what might have been and of what has been lost.
But Fashionably Late is rightly viewed as a celebration of what has been found. Linda Thompson is back, and back with a superb album. By mining the mother lode of traditional folk music, she’s created a masterpiece for the new millennium.