I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
, the astonishing first album credited to Richard and Linda Thompson, opens like In the Airplane Over the Sea
: with the purposeful strums of an acoustic guitar, strums that feel like announcements for the soul-baring which follows. But whereas in “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” Jeff Mangum locates a bristly eroticism adjacent to memories of a childhood gone wrong, Richard Thompson seems tilted entirely away from the world: “Dirty people take what’s mine / I can leave ‘em all behind” he mumbles into the microphone to open, and he goes from there.
“When I Get to the Border” is the name of that opening song, and its reworking of what I can only assume is an English folk song, so historical
does its modal melody feel, deserves placement in the pantheon of unforgettable openers: your “Smells Like Teen Spirit”s, your “Like a Rolling Stone”s. This indelible folk tune even comes tied to a krummhorn-and-whistle breakdown which feels compelled into purgatory by alternating major and minor keys and which renders the morose emotional content of Thompson’s lyrics abstract.
The Thompsons check these boxes over and over throughout the duration of this release: no album before or since has so lithely united the psychic turmoil of the artist with melody and timbre and tune and done so in a manner which feels both accessible and irreducibly personal. Every song, and I do mean all 10, works its magic. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
reaches for you even as it endlessly retreats.
The song which gives the album its gorgeous title and album cover may be the epitome of this affective twoness. Neither the titular demand nor the brass band which backs it up registers as ironic, and Linda’s performance is strikingly modern and reserved. But we also hear her and understand that this is a woman hurt--her emotional world so circumscribed that even her passes at happiness or romance cannot be taken but with a grain of salt.
Anyone for whom this constriction of all life is a familiar experience may find I Want to See the Bright Lights
too purely mimetic of a climate of lack and abjection which they don’t wish to re-experience. But if you believe art can add something to the world and not just represent it, the caution and terror in the Thompsons’ voices may soon find its permanent place in the flux of your lurid journey.