TERRY GROSS, HOST:
British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson has a new album called "Electric." Thompson is as well known for his acoustic folk music as for his electric rock. Music critic Ken Tucker says the new album is a strong collection of songs that shows off Thompson's many moods.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALFORD SUNDAY")
RICHARD THOMPSON: (Singing) Salford Sunday, skies are weeping. Dawn is creeping through the blind. Salford Sunday and I'm aching for the night I left behind. Salford Sunday...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Delicate phrasing, with both voice and guitar, have always made Richard Thompson a musician well worth listening to and sometimes even liking him. For a man who can make such pretty music, it's to his credit that he prefers to show his thorny, stubborn, cranky, even mean side in many of the songs in his solo career.
Indeed, ever since going through a divorce now three decades old from Linda Thompson - after they made their masterpiece of their career, 1982's "Shoot Out the Lights" - Thompson's songwriting has returned again and again to his, shall we say, complex relationships with women.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER SMALL THING IN HER FAVOUR")
THOMPSON: (Singing) Got her ducks all in a row. Got her bags all packed to go. She'll find some other poor pilgrim who's braver. At least she looked me in the eye with her less than fond good-bye. Well, that's one small thing in her favor.
TUCKER: That's "Another Small Thing in Her Favour," a lovely song about breaking up with not a little rancor. As the title makes clear, the narrator will give the woman some credit, but only grudgingly. When Thompson isn't working in peak form, this recurring theme can become tiresome.
But this time around, working with producer Buddy Miller, who mostly favors spare settings for Thompson's guitar and voice, the new songs have a crisp clarity that wrings out most of the self-righteousness. Two songs stand out in particular.
The first is "Stony Ground," in which the 63-year-old Thompson imagines a codger older than himself, still feeling goatish and erotically greedy, and still getting poked in the nose for his urges. The result is what might happen if Philip Roth wrote the lyrics for a song with roots in British folk music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONY GROUND")
THOMPSON: (Singing) He lost his heart to buxom Betty, throwing out the compliments like confetti. Left and right, he threw them all around but everything was landing on stony ground. Oh, silly old man with his teeth all gone. Poking his nose where it don't belong. She's a rose, all right, but she's got thorns. You're walking on stony, stony ground.
TUCKER: The other immediately striking song on this album "Electric" is one of its few flat-out rock songs, one that puts the electricity in the album's title. "Good Things Happen to Bad People," is another she-done-him-wrong song, but it courses with the energy of the enraged; the revulsion of a realist.
Listen to the way Thompson belts out the chorus that good things happen to bad people even as he prays just as fervently that karma exists for revenge. Then he lets his guitar do the rest of the loud, dirty, catchy work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO BAD PEOPLE")
THOMPSON: (Singing) Sweet thing, believe me you'll never deceive me. You stared me down without blinking. That's when I really started thinking. You must've been running around. You must've been running around because you were smiling. Your friends say you're antsy for something fancy. Like a caged bird that's broken free, you want to fly high and miss out on me.
(Singing) Well, I know you've got a secret or two. Your hair's in a brand-new 'do and you're so happy. Good things happen to bad people. Good things happen to bad people but only - but only - but only - but only for a while.
TUCKER: "Good Things Happen to Bad People" is a good song happening to a singer-songwriter who is perpetually circling great work. And this album, "Electric," is, in general, the testament of a frequently angry coot still coming to terms with the sources of his frustrations. Which, I hope, ought to give him material for many more years to come.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. He reviewed Richard Thompson's new album "Electric."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)