Midway through Linda Thompsonís comeback album, Fashionably Late (Rounder), thereís "No Telling," which that starts out like something her ex-husband, Richard Thompson, would have written. The mournful tune is in Richardís style, as is the scenario: a troubled old man wanders into a bar, orders one drink too many, and sinks into despair while a lounge singer performs. If Richard had indeed written "No Telling," the poor soul probably wouldnít make it home. But the songís resolution is where Linda finds her own voice: her hero experiences catharsis in listening to the band, comes out healed, and winds up marrying the singer. Not only does she pull off a happy ending, she throws in a chorus that makes it believable: "No telling what a love song will do."
Linda Thompson knows a thing or two about love songs, especially the troubled kind. As Richardís partner from 1971 to 1983, she gave voice to many of his darkest lyrics. And the coupleís break-up is the stuff of folk-rock legend. Richard wrote a timeless album (Shoot Out the Lights) about the marriageís end and got her to sing most of it. The usually reserved Linda proceeded to have a lost weekend during their farewell tour (the most famous stories concern her making passes at fans during shows and breaking at least one guitar over Richardís head). Although pegged for a flourishing solo career, she developed a hysterical condition that left her unable to sing. Her first solo album ó 1985ís One Clear Moment (Warner Bros.) ó disappeared quickly, and the second was never released, though excerpts from both can be found on the Rykodisc compilation Dreams Fly Away.
Unlike her sporadic solo work in the past, Fashionably Late stays close to the austere, Celtic-flavored sound of the Richard & Linda albums ó Richard even makes a surprise appearance on the opener, "Dear Mary" ó though itís a folk rather than a folk-rock album. "No Telling" aside, the songs have a gravity that suits her voice. "On the Banks of the Clyde" covers ground similar to that of Richardís urban tragedy "Withered & Died." "Weary Life" sounds like a British music-hall song about the drudgery of marriage, though without any underlying goodwill.
But the album is really about Thompsonís rediscovering what her voice can do. Its sound hasnít changed much ó it was already deep and world-weary when she was in her 20s ó but she takes more chances with it, putting on an American accent in the Western-styled "Nine Stone Rig" and dueting with a variety of partners (Richard, her son Teddy, Kate Rusby, Rufus Wainwright). "Paint & Powder Beauty" may not be a brilliant song, but the twilight cabaret setting ó with her voice swooping and curling around a Van Dyke Parks string arrangement ó sure makes it sound like one.
Over the phone from London, Thompson explains that her voice came back gradually. She did some theatrical shows in Britain with David Thomas of Pere Ubu and turned up incognita to sing at a few of Teddyís early shows (one of which took place a few years ago at Passim, with maybe a dozen people present). "I just stopped for a long time, stopped dead. I ran an antique-jewelry business for a time, which made me a hell of a lot more money than music ever did. Then I did the theater shows with David Thomas, and that was completely liberating. There were still times when nothing would come out at all. He said, ĎDonít worry if your voice goes out; just talk.í It was improvised, so I didnít have to carry the weight of singing a beautiful song."
Asked about the famous lost weekend, she reveals some new dirt. "Did you hear about my stealing a car? That happened in those falls up near Canada . . . Niagara Falls. I stole a car, drove off with it, and got us arrested. I was completely mad, on the vodka and antidepressants. It was obviously horrible at the time, but I look back on it rather fondly now. I was so heartbroken that I stopped thinking about my throat, and I really sang very well. Those things I did were so out of character that it was quite a broadening experience. But mind you, I donít think Iíd want to go through it all again." On the new album, I suggest, it must have been fun to be able to boss Richard around in the studio. "Yes, but you know him," she sighs. "Heís annoyingly good."
The same mixed feelings come through on Fashionably Lateís closer, "Dear Old Man of Mine." Itís not the first song sheís written about Richard ó One Clear Moment was almost all nasty, post-divorce songs. But this one is different. It begins affectionately, if not quite flatteringly ("Hereís to the man that we thought was dead, singing like heís got a gun to his head"), proceeds through bitterness and forgiveness, then decides itís time to move on. In the course of three minutes, you can hear Linda coming to terms with decades-old tensions, regaining her spirit as well as her voice. No telling what a love song will do.