Recording of October 1991: Rumor and Sigh

Capitol CDP 95713-2 (CD only). Dave Leonard, Lance Phillips, Tchad Blake, engs.; Mitchell Froom, prod. ADD. TT: 61:25

Imagine the consternation at Watsamatta U. if Bill Shakespeare's ghost sauntered into a dissertation defense and told the assembled eggheads in no uncertain terms that Hamlet is not: a) an existential hero; b) a Marxist; c) a mama's boy; d) all of the above. That's how I feel sitting here trying to write this review after Richard Thompson politely dismissed most of my pet theories about his latest album as the residue of coincidence or products of an overactive imagination. Trust the art, not the artist, I say to myself. So if you want to know what Richard Thompson thinks about Rumor and Sigh, turn to the interview on p.228. If you still want to know what I think, Richard be damned, keep right on reading.

From beginning to end, Rumor and Sigh (footnote 1) hangs together better than any of Thompson's other solo albums. After a couple of laps through those earlier records, I'd often latch onto a few choice cuts—say, "How Can I Ever Be Simple Again," "Al Bowlly's in Heaven," and "Valerie"—and play them over and over, bypassing some of the swampier stuff in the middle. This time I feel no need to rush past "Backlash Love Affair" to get to "Psycho Street."

Maybe that's because there's a trail running through these 14 seemingly unrelated songs. Not that Thompson makes it simple for us to follow. Check out "I Feel So Good," the album's first single, about an ex-con's first night out. At first blush, it could be the soundtrack for a new Roger Ailes campaign commercial: "Willie Horton II—the Nightmare Continues." Listen more closely and you'll hear a feminist sensibility that would make Molly Yard stand up and cheer. So it's only natural the next cut is entitled "I Misunderstood," which kind of sets the tone for the whole album. Never one to shy away from extremes, Thompson merrily juxtaposes "I Misunderstood," which asks the musical question "Can't we just be friends?," with "Behind Grey Walls," in which a man tenderly takes his lover for electroshock therapy. What ever happened to going to the movies?

For my money, the most remarkable song here is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Look at the lyric sheet and the "boy gets bike / boy meets girl / boy gets shot / girl gets bike" story line seems like something from the second half of a 1950s drive-in double feature. I admit I'm a sucker for a story song, an acoustic guitar, and things mechanical and British, but Thompson goes beyond the call here. Every image ("Red hair and black leather / my favorite color scheme") is sharp as a switchblade, and he sings as if the life he saves may be his own. This kind of earnestness is particularly disarming coming from a card-carrying cynic like R.T.. And once the ride is over, you're left with a slightly queasy remembrance of how easily, how effortlessly you followed him from love to death in three easy verses.

This rollercoaster of a record ends appropriately enough on "Psycho Street." Thompson starts with a knockoff of the Nutrasweet theme music from Neighbors, an Australian sitcom which is a big hit in England—combine roughly equal parts "Dynasty," "As the World Turns," "Who's the Boss?," and "Mister Rogers," and you'll get the idea. Around this treacly chorus, Thompson fiendishly intones lyrics that sound like Charles Manson's list of Things To Do Today. Twisted? Sure. Hilarious? You bet.

Surprise, Surprise. The sound on Rumor and Sigh doesn't let us down. On their third go-round, Richard and producer Mitchell Froom seem to have found the formula. Thompson's voice and guitar (which, I must add, is in fine form as usual) they leave well enough alone; the tinkering's in the supporting tracks. "I Misunderstood," for example, features a striking mix of a natural vocal track with an almost comically huuuuuge bass and drums which will shake the cobwebs off your woofers. Some of the full-band cuts sound a little harsh—"Mother Knows Best," to name one—but even that seems better than on previous outings.

While we're on the subject of sound, "Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands" should be required listening for all audiophiles. At least twice a week. This "There but for the Grace of God..." ballad tells the tale of a geek who carries his 78rpm polka platters around to every party he crashes, and spends the rest of the night protecting them from lardballs looking for a place to sit down. There's a lesson here for all of us who cling a bit too tightly to the past. Remember this the next time Bang, Baroom, and Harp leaves your humble abode.

In sum, Rumor and Sigh is a brilliant album, but hardly an easy one. Once you've sifted through the personas and the period settings, the whispering ballads and the raging rockers, the hyperbole and the understatement, you're left with a handful of misunderstandings, intentional and otherwise, cutting every which way. She misunderstands him. He misunderstands her. We misunderstand them both. Whether it's cheek to cheek or at arm's length, Rumor and Sigh is all about the distance between, and in Richard Thompson's sad, beautiful world, it's a distance that's never quite right.—Allen St. John

Footnote 1: The title is from an Archibald MacLeish poem. But you knew that, didn't you?