When an artist has yet to release an album that was less than very good, is it remarkable that the latest album is great? My dad wrote a lead to that effect for an unpublished review of Richard Thompson’s Hand of Kindness album in 1983, before I was even born, and here we are 35 years later and I can still use it for 2018’s 13 Rivers. However while most bands that stay good do so by maintaining stylistic consistency (Angus Young once said AC/DC didn’t have 12 albums that all sound the same, they had 13 (AC/DC now has 16 albums that all sound the same)), Thompson has always been stylistically restless. Thematically centering around love and death, his musical aesthetic, best described by Allen Toussaint when he called Thompson “the mad scientist of music, has varied wildly from electric to acoustic, from contemporary to classic, from conventional to experimental.
Richard Thompson is usually categorized as folk rock but to compare him to The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) wouldn’t be wholly accurate. Thompson is the less often discussed but no less great English folk rock. Perhaps this was most visible immediately after the Fairport Convention years like on 1972’s Henry The Human Fly, even just by reading the title of the opening song, “Roll Over Vaughn Williams.” His style, when he’s not getting really weird on tracks like “Psycho Street,” is that of an old English troubadour who swapped out his lyre for a Telecaster. I could comb his discography with examples of this, but this being his 23rd original studio album (including works with Linda Thompson), not all of which I’ve listened to, I’m just going to proceed with the review of this one.
13 Rivers is more down tempo and lamenting than previous albums like 2013’s Electric or 1999’s Mock Tudor. It begins with “The Storm Won’t Come,” a pensive track that is the saddest iteration of the Bo Diddley beat I’ve ever heard with lyrical themes of wanting something to happen when it won’t. “My Rock, My Rope” is a depressive anthem of needing stability in hard times. Some songs are more excited, like “The Rattle Within,” which feels halfway between Thompson’s 2013 song “Stony Ground” and a track off Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. While “Her Love Was Meant for Me” is a dramatic power ballad about feeling like something that ought to have been wasn’t, and “Bones of Gilead” is a spooky song with a fun beat and a great riff.
I’m not sure if this is one of Thompson’s more conventional albums or if I’m just learning to expect certain things from him. It doesn’t feel like it’s exploring scales like he did in the 70s on songs like “Pharaoh,” nor is it so blatantly experimental in its chord progressions like on 1983’s “Tear Stained Letter.” However, this is for a value equal to Richard Thompson.13 Rivers is still far more out there than the vast majority of what’s out there.
Overall, 13 Rivers is a valuable addition to Thompson’s oeuvre. It has a distinctly different mood from recent albums like Electric and Still without sacrificing any quality. It’s no surprise, coming from a man who has been producing such consistently good work for decades, but adds to the inspiration others can find in having an enduring career in the arts.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.