Linda Thompson has been flying under the radar for decades. With her ex-husband Richard Thompson (founding member of Fairport Convention and a stunning guitarist and songwriter) she contributed to the classic albums “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and “Shoot Out the Lights.”
After the Thompsons broke up personally and musically, Linda put out a low-key solo album, 1985’s “One Clear Moment,” before succumbing to hysterical dysphonia, a condition that made it impossible for her to speak. She continued writing songs with various collaborators, but didn’t record again until 2002 when she released the ironically titled “Fashionably Late.”
Thompson’s voice had returned and the album was hailed as the work of a meticulous craftswoman, seemingly incapable of putting out music that’s any less than spectacular.
Five years later, she appears again with “Versatile Heart” (Rounder) a stunning collection of ballads, proving to all that her creative fire remains undiminished. There are few tunes by other writers: Rufus Wainwright contributes “Beauty,” a poignant ballad that Thompson delivers with her understated majesty, while her reading of the Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan protest song “Day After Tomorrow” is positively heartrending. The song is written as a letter home from a young man in Iraq, praying that he’ll live to see his 21st birthday. Thompson’s vocal is haunting, brimming over with raw longing and an almost fatal resignation.
As good as those songs are, they’re appetizers for the main course: eight new Thompson tunes, some written in collaboration with her son Teddy, and a new song by her daughter Kamila, “Nice Cars.”
On “Do Your Best for Rock ’N’ Roll,” Linda and Teddy channel the ghost of Hank Williams, Sr. The tune’s melody suggests “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but moves in its own unique direction, with Thompson’s weary country vocal laying out her broken — but still beating — heart for all to see. It’s a wrenching performance, with James Walbourne’s guitar mixed to produce a blue-tinged, larger-than-life twang.
“Give Me a Sad Song,” another country weeper, co-written with Betsy Cook, uses the usual images of booze, country music and remorse to paint a distressing picture of a life in ruins. Thompson’s quavering vocals here wouldn’t sound out of place on anything coming out of Nashville.
“Blue & Gold” is written as an English folk song, using the language of fairy tales to explore the ups and downs of love. It’s a risky gambit, but Thompson pulls it off without resorting to clichés. “Whiskey, Bob Copper and Me” is another new, traditional-sounding British folk song, a tribute to Bob Cooper, the A.P. Carter of British traditional music. It’s another account of bereavement, with Eliza Carthy supplying the poignant harmony vocals.
Thompson’s heart may be versatile, but her forte is her ability to imbue songs of remorse, loss and frustrated desire with a soulful beauty and an implied state of grace. This album is even deeper, more sensitive and more inspiring than the astonishing “Fashionably Late.” One can only hope we won’t have to wait another five years for her next release.