Born Linda Pettifer, Linda Thompson, then known as Linda Peters, made an inauspicious debut as half of Paul & Linda in 1968. The duo, which included singer Paul McNeill, recorded two singles, the first being a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” for MGM in the U.K. In 1972, following a couple of years of session work, singing commercial jingles, and working the folk clubs around London, she teamed with friend Sandy Denny and other assorted members of the British folk-rock scene to record Rock On, a collection of early rock & roll favorites, under the name of the Bunch. She was featured on the King-Goffin classic “The Loco-Motion” and a beautiful duet with Denny on Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved”.
Peters met Fairport Convention guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson in 1969, but did not work with him until 1972 when they performed together on the Rock On record and later that year on Richard’s solo debut, Henry the Human Fly. That same year, Richard and Linda were married, and in 1974, with the now classic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, began a musical partnership that would span nearly ten years and six critically acclaimed, yet commercially unsuccessful, albums. During this time Linda would also make her mark as one of the finest female voices in pop music. The Thompsons’ musical, as well as personal, relationship came to an end just as they were gaining some long overdue notoriety, especially in the U.S., with their brilliant and moving 1982 release Shoot Out the Lights. The record, recorded on a shoestring budget for tiny Hannibal Records, has been widely heralded as one of the true masterpieces of the rock & roll era and garnered Linda Thompson honors as Female Vocalist of the Year in many year-end critics’ polls.
Following the breakup, Linda performed in the English theater, touring with The Mysteries and appearing in the National Theatre’s production of Don Quixote, before signing with Warner Bros. Records in 1985. The subsequent record, One Clear Moment, produced by Hugh Murphy (Gerry Rafferty), turned out to be her only post-Richard album.
In 1985, Linda Thompson made a startling exit from the folk-rock music scene she helped to invent. Her self-imposed banishment came in response to two intractable realities - her divorce from the guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson, the scene’s leading light, and a rare anxiety-based syndrome called hysterical dysphonia, the vocalist’s equivalent of merciless stage fright. The durable beauty of her recordings with Richard has assured her status as folk rock royalty for more than 20 years. Now she comes to reclaim her territory.
Her aptly titled comeback is, of course, several years in the making, the sustained vision of the artist and her producer, Edward Haber, who also assembled the retrospective compilation of her work, Dreams Fly Away, in 1996. Chief concert recording engineer for WNYC, the New York outlet for National Public Radio, Haber captures, rather than manufactures, sound. There are no special effects here, no audio pyrotechnics. Just that voice, and exquisite musicianship. Her dysphonia is under control these days; in fact, she has appeared on stage in recent years with the Royal National Theatre and with the avant popist David Thomas, of Pere Ubu fame. Her children are grown - her middle child, Teddy Thompson, is a serenely gifted musician in his own right, and on Fashionably Late, serves as her extraordinary music partner.
She remains obsessed with the deep British folk music that she and her circle reanimated with the electricity of rock and roll. Like all great folk singers - Sandy Denny in particular, Richard’s partner in Fairport Convention in whose shadow she sometimes felt herself to stand - Linda Thompson has an ancient voice, wilting, wounded and wise. She sings with the conviction of an eyewitness of thieves, beggars, drunks, street urchins and circus freaks, spurned lovers and murdering swine, centuries-gone.
The album’s lead-off track,”Dear Mary” - co-authored with Teddy, sung with Richard, Teddy and daughter, Kamila, and peppered with Richard’s guitar wizardry - delivers a knockout chorus in the unmistakable Thompson manner. To hear Linda’s voice in full flower again, after seventeen years of silence, surrounded by her family, is proof positive you can go home again. The song features their mid-register voices locked together, one of the record’s recurrent pleasures, also used to great effect when mother and son trade verses on Lal Waterson’s “Evona Darling”.
Thompson’s unalloyed passion for “hardcore” folk (her word) yields a chilling re-invention of the “faux” Scottish murder ballad “Nine Stone Rig”, to which she added several verses; the murder and its aftermath are recounted with stark, journalistic precision. “Banks of the Clyde”, written for her brother Brian, is likewise hardcore, only this time bittersweet, a broken down woman’s wish for home. “Paint &Powder Beauty”, written with the gifted young songwriter Rufus Wainwright, wanders farthest afield. A stylish, theatrical, ‘40s-style ballad, the song takes a hard look at an aging call girl from the buyer’s point of view. The languid string arrangement by Robert Kirby, who orchestrated Nick Drake’s songbook, features a viola solo with an ear to the singer’s honeyed register. But the heartwrecker is her own “No Telling”, a composition written a cappella, as she does, a love song that relates the redemptive power of a love song using the medium as the message.
The musicians are first rate, chiefly acoustic guitarist John Doyle and bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) in addition to son Teddy. Van Dyke Parks guests on accordion and Hammond B-3 organ; Geoff Muldaur arranged “Miss Murray” for Richard Greene’s fiddle and Parks’ accordion; there are harmonies by Martha Wainwright and England’s current folk princess, former Poozie Kate Rusby. Trad punk fiddler Eliza Carthy lends her spirit to “Weary Life”, and Linda reunites with Eliza’s father Martin Carthy (they made some demos together in 1970). The album also features Fairport veterans Jerry Donohue (solo on “All I See”), Dave Mattacks (drums) and Dave Pegg (acoustic bass, mandolin). The last of the ten tracks, “Dear Old Man of Mine”, is another family affair, only this time the song is clearly about Richard and performed in his absence, with Teddy handling the guitar and their youngest child, Kamila, providing the harmony.
Superlatives fail to justly describe the voice of Linda Thompson. Steely yet vulnerable, comforting yet haunting, Thompson’s singing is never less than riveting, and has played a crucial role in some of the most powerful, influential music of the past thirty years. Thompson demonstrates that, in addition to being an incomparable interpreter, she is an equally astonishing songwriter - stitching traditional British Isles music and more contemporary influences into a sound that is expressive and direct, yet timeless. From the brass-flecked acoustic pop of the title track to the cool rockabilly of “Do Your Best for Rock ‘n Roll,” her writing forms the core of Versatile Heart.