Teddy Thompson. Raphael Sagher/Verve
Teddy Thompson sings in a keening tenor that registers as confidence and strength. Then he writes songs about what a weak, flawed, even weaselly man he can be. This contrast is the key to most of the songs on Bella. In "Delilah," he speaks of having to get out of his own way to open himself up to a happiness that he complicates unnecessarily. A bit later, in "Over and Over," his first-person narrator says he criticizes and ridicules himself so that "no one else can" — that isolation is a "comfortable" place — and that "repeating myself cuts the fear."
To strip these sentiments from the songs, you'd think you were in for a lot of moping. Instead, Bella bursts with wonderful pop songs such as its lead-off track, "Looking for a Girl."
"Looking for a Girl," with its surging chorus and clever couplets about looking for a girl "who turns my bread into buttered toast," could pass as a hit on the American country-music charts — and reminds you of this British singer-songwriter's affinity for early rock styles. His third album, 2007's Upfront & Low Down, was a collection of country-music covers, and in the new "I Feel," he takes a Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers approach to melodic harmony.
I've mentioned three songs without mentioning that Teddy Thompson is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson. Certainly, one way Teddy has distinguished himself from his parents is by stressing his singing over his guitar playing or songwriting. I suspect that's what's behind his continued emphasis on American songcraft, as well. Still, he doesn't shy away from his status as the son of folk-rock royalty. He's played in his father's band, in Rosanne Cash's band, helped write much of his mother's 2002 comeback album and has performed with other music-family siblings such as Rufus Wainwright. In one of the best songs on Bella, he performs a duet with Jenni Muldaur, the daughter of Maria and Geoff Muldaur. The song, "Tell Me What You Want," is cast as a lovely back-and-forth between two lovers dancing around their mutual desires and needs.
Moving across the attractive surfaces of Bella is a fog of regret and free-floating melancholy. The word or name "Bella" never appears on the album, although Thompson has said in interviews that it's the name of someone he was once close to. The album feels like the chronicle of a man coming to terms with missed opportunities for an intimacy that only drives him deeper within himself. This would be a self-indulgent downer had Teddy Thompson not transmuted these sentiments into something lively and beautiful.