Across a Crowded Room is the first Richard Thompson solo album in thirteen years to be released on a major label, and by any standard other than his own it's a very fine record, replete with rollicking rhythms, master-class guitar excursions and piercing lyrical apercus. However, longtime Thompson listeners may find that, compared to much of his past work — particularly the six superb studio albums he recorded with his ex-wife, singer Linda Thompson — Across a Crowded Room is faintly disappointing. Such are the burdens of inveterate brilliance.
For his cautious reentry into the commercial big leagues, Thompson and his producer, Joe Boyd, apparently decided to accentuate the more accessible rock & roll aspects of his art, which is fine: "You Don't Say," with its chunkety, damped-string rhythmic sizzle and typically off-kilter Stratocaster inventions, is a real gem, and "Little Blue Number," a three-chord whomper fitted out with atonal flourishes and squealing krummhorn lines, is a hilarious hashing of the rock-fashion scene. And with drummer Dave Mattacks and bassist Bruce Lynch booting the crack band, the playing here, as usual, is aces.
But Thompson has never before seemed so far removed from the Celtic folk sources that, along with his own latter-day Sufi mysticism, lent a hardeyed, fatalistic grandeur to so much of his previous work. Here, his spiritual vision seems soured. Listeners likely to miss the vibrant vocals of the departed Linda (each time a female harmony crops up on Crowded Room, one is instantly aware that it's Not Her) will find that Richard appears to have his former partner much on his mind — and the lyrical pictures he paints are not pretty. In "She Twists the Knife Again," he describes a woman who "Never leaves me my dignity Makes a dunce of me in mixed companyNo bygone can be a bygone She puts the spanner in/She puts the screws on." And at the end of the musically manic "Fire in the Engine Room," he likens a wedding ring to "a rattlesnake wrapped around your finger One day it might wake up and sting you Here's a toast to the bride and the groom" — unsettling words from a man who himself only recently remarried.
One wouldn't want to read too many heavy omens into those two songs, which are laced with Thompson's familiar bracing humor. But there's nothing lighthearted about the ominous "Love in a Faithless Country," in which the logistics of love are set forth in the terms of a John Le Carré spy novel ("Always move in pairs and travel light.... Always make your best moves late at night"), and the chorus recalls nothing so much as late-period Pink Floyd. Chilly stuff.
Those unfamiliar with Thompson's work are invited to dismiss all of the above as purist nit-picking. Across a Crowded Room remains a compendium of expertly constructed songs, played and sung with real heart and recorded with an exciting, live-in-the-studio crackle. Rare is the artist from whom such excellence can come to seem a letdown.