There are musicians who play guitar better than Richard Thompson does. There are tunesmiths who craft more beautiful, more ingenious songs. And there are lyricists who turn phrases with more wit and brio. But over the last 30 years or so, no single artist has done all three of these things as well as Thompson. Starting out as a teenager in the pioneering í60s Celt-folk-rock band Fairport Convention, he established himself as a prodigious talent ó one too big for Fairport. After leaving the band in 1971, he recorded one tentative solo project, Starring Henry the Human Fly (Hannibal), then produced a string of albums with his then-wife, singer Linda Thompson, that constitute one of the great musical runs of the 1970s and early í80s. I Want To See the Bright Lights (Hannibal), from 1974, remains one of the freshest discs of that decade. The coupleís break-up album, 1982ís ferocious, agonizing Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal), is one of the most gorgeous displays of romantic disintegration in pop music; it makes the cathartic work of Trent Reznor seem like the semi-literate binder doodlings of a humorless eighth-grader.
Along the way, Thompson perfected a brawny, gristly mixture of British folk, blues, and rock. Pop, too: " Tear Stained Letter, " a witty rave-up from his first post-Linda solo album, Hand of Kindness (Hannibal), became an unlikely Top 10 country single when Jo-el Sonnier covered it in 1988. Thompson also evolved into the quintessential cult artist, a songwriterís songwriter who, like such disparate peers as Neil Young, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, and Shane MacGowan, can craft songs so big and weird and real that you can crawl inside them. And heís ever the gracious opening act for middling bands ó the kind of performer who makes you want to skip the headliner so you can go out and buy all his albums.
Then thereís his guitar playing, which is an international treasure beyond the reach of most adjectives. " Rococo. " " Angular. " " Serrated. " " Fierce. " " Whimsical. " Take your pick. On " Jealous Words, " a chunky, smoldering blues from the new The Old Kit Bag (spinART), his 25th solo album, Thompson coaxes howls and shrieks and moans out of his guitar without ever resorting to clichés or standard-issue rock-god wankery. Itís the kind of sloppy-elegant counterintuitive work thatís always endeared him to a generation of listeners suspicious of Musicianship. Itís also made him a major influence on guitarists like Mark Knopfler and Tom Verlaine. When Thompson spins his deft, chiming little solo on " She Said It Was Destiny " ó an intricate, glistening piece of í60s Britpop thatís a highlight on the new album ó itís like Vladimir Nabokov writing prose or Michael Jordan taking jump shots: ecstatic and effortless.
For the most part, though, The Old Kit Bag forgoes sweetness and ecstasy for more introspective pleasures in the spirit of " Uninhabited Man, " a strange, bleak song from 1999ís otherwise buoyant Mock Tudor (Capitol). " Gethsemane " is a stark portrait of regret and lost promise undergirded by Thompsonís bone-deep guitar drones. " A Love You Canít Survive " is a slow-burn first-person character sketch of murder and shame thatís a showcase for his bittersweet-chocolate voice. " One Door Opens " takes him back to his Celt-folk roots, all ringing dulcimers and driving, Renaissance Faire rhythms. The song also hints at his religious preoccupations (heís been a Sufi Muslim since the mid í70s), a subject he addresses more fully, if indirectly, on " Outside of the Inside, where he takes on the persona of a religious fanatic who rails against art and enlightenment.
Throughout, the production and the arrangements are as spare and unmediated as any heís ever used. John Chelew (John Hiatt, Los Lobos) produces, Thompsonís son Danny plays bass, Michael Jerome plays drums, and singer Judith Owen provides back-up vocals reminiscent of Linda Thompsonís rusty copper tones, especially on the lovely, lively harmonies of " Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen. " As the albumís title suggests, Thompson is working in familiar territory. But the discís subtitle ó Unguents, Fig Leaves and Tourniquets for the Soul ó evokes the larger ambition of every song he writes and every note he plays. On the closer, a meditation on music and loss called " Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne, " he sings, " And sometimes you never connect with a song/Till itís telling the way that you feel/Putting words to your story, all the pain and the glory/How can it be written so real? " The Old Kit Bag will leave you asking the same question.
Richard Thompson appears July 22 at Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston; call (617) 228-6000.