Sweet Warrior‘s ecstatic opener, “Needle And Thread,” is Richard Thompson’s take on Neil Diamond’s classic “Solitary Man.” Both catalog the women who’ve done their man wrong and proclaim a call to self-realization, though Thompson’s not-so-subtle phallic imagery (“I’ll thread up my needle and then/Gonna sew my soul back together again”) is far more colorful than Diamond’s matter-of-factness. The guitar and mandolin work are what we’ve come to expect and love from Thompson: all style, swagger, and nimbleness, bouncing on and off the backing band’s beat, and elaborating or disregarding the leitmotifs at will. Nobody plays guitar quite like Thompson: With solos that can save even his weakest songs, and with better tunes that can stack up alongside the best of Dylan’s or Cohen’s, he’s rock n’ roll’s most dependable recording artist—four decade’s worth of albums without a single stinker.
It probably goes without saying that Sweet Warrior is a minor release from a major artist; there are literally seven or eight other Thompson albums—not compilations or live records or boxed sets, but studio albums—that are more essential. If anything, I’d kind of like to see Thompson crash and burn just once (where’s his Self-Portrait or Emotional Rescue already?) but the first minute of “Needle And Thread” alone proves the guy’s still wired for songs and arrangements twice as stirring as tunesmiths and guitarists half his age. My math is rusty, but that should mean that even if the rest of Warrior sucks (which it doesn’t), it’s still about four times better than nearly any other 2007 release.
“Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” is a protest song that effectively uses military lingo (Dad = Baghdad) to capture a soldier’s mindset; raw as hell, it reminds me more of Anthony Swofford’s war chronicle Jarhead than it does “Talkin’ Vietnam Blues” or—thank God—anything off Taking The Long Way. “Bad Monkey” is a rockin’ polka song like Thompson’s live-staple “Tear Stained Letter” while “Francesca” takes a liltingly lame stab at reggae that’s redeemed by a killer guitar solo. “She Sang Angels To Rest,” one of only three tunes without a lick of electric guitar, is a mournful ballad that sounds more than a bit like Thompson’s renditions of Renaissance fare from his 1000 Years Of Popular Music project. Like both Warrior‘s finest and weakest moments (and “Angels” falls on the weaker side of the scale), it sounds like something you’ve heard from him before. Album closer “Sunset Song” gives folk balladry another go, bringing the house down with lithe finger-picking and hushed vocals, crafting a timeless portrait of sorta-sleazy, rushed sex.
“Guns Are The Tongues,” however, is the standout track; a terrorist’s narrative (the “murderous crew” is never identified, but I’m presuming IRA) about a femme fatale who converts her suitors into suicide bombers, the song is a startling ballad that makes up for lacking the immediacy of “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” with wisdom of hindsight and a gracious elegance. Thompson’s lyrics are always chosen with a poet’s flair and an editor’s precision and Sweet Warrior fittingly takes its title from a Spenser sonnet. The tightness of Thompson’s compositions grounds the explosive, whimsical meandering of his improvs; Sweet Warrior, and “Guns Are The Tongues” in particular, captures that glory as well as anything else from this century.