Richard Thompson is in a position of almost unlimited creative freedom, and he may not even realize it. Since he sells respectably, enough to generate some revenue, there's not too much pressure on him to do anything blatantly commercial. There is no folk-rock songwriter/guitarist held in higher esteem by his peers than Thompson. Granted, there aren't many, but artists such as Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Shawn Colvin have recorded Thompson's tunes.
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Impressively, Thompson first made his name as a guitar hero about 20 years ago and has concentrated on the songwriting side since. As leader of Fairport Convention in the '60s, one half of a duo with his now-ex-wife Linda and as a solo artist, Thompson has been consistent. He merges literate lyrics, which often cynically chronicle the good and very bad, with fluid guitar playing. Here he continues that tradition, and adds an edge, but doesn't stray enough musically, which is disappointing considering the freedom he has earned.
Produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Beck), Mock Tudor is a concept record inspired by Thompson's relationship with his London hometown and its suburbs. This sounds like a pretentious snoozefest, but in Thompson's hands, the tales breathe and beat with life. He has seen enough twisted things and people to come up with an album's worth of reminiscence without being pedantic or sappy. The record is autobiographical, but it isn't all from Thompson's perspective. Instead, it deals with the peripheral things and people Thompson has experienced and known.
"Sights and Sounds of London Town," a quick-tempoed acoustic number with a Celtic-bluegrass feel, is a happy jaunt, celebrating the city but also looking at the people beneath the veneer who aren't winning and seem to be going nowhere fast. The singer inhabits the flotsam and jetsam of failed lives in London: hookers, the homeless, thugs and junkies. Without a sentimental or judgmental tone, Thompson gives the characters names and tells each of their stories of losing in half a dozen lines.
Like Thompson's most literate work, the conclusions are up to the listener. Mock Tudor is more a picture of time gone by than a deep analysis of the past. Part of the charm is because Thompson is adept at painting scenes and sketching stories. The scary, gothic closer, "Hope You Like the New Me," finds Thompson alone with an acoustic guitar and his voice in the first-person role of a body snatcher. Mostly playing single notes of a chord, he recounts taking over his subject's style, jokes, wife and, finally, soul. It's a spooky end to a record -- the smiling face of insincerity with sparse accompaniment -- leaving the music nothing to hide behind. This kind of unflinching storytelling is the reason so much praise has been heaped on the Englishman and the same reason he's not a household name.