Music: Songs of Sad Experience

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The Thompsons create a powerful LP out of a broken marriage

The year so far: Richard and Linda Thompson, British musicians of formidable gifts and marginal celebrity, release their sixth album, Shoot Out the Lights. It is a record that has no contemporary equal for surpassing a particularly difficult goal: working the simple tragedies of the everyday into the stuff of folk legend, and letting the stories flow through melodies that seem to have been tapped from some deep Celtic wellspring. The music, fresh, strong and startling, has ancient reverberations and contemporary overtones. Each song has the clenched power and pitiless clarity of a Francis Bacon painting.

Shoot Out the Lights does not get heavy air play or make a dent in the charts—pitiless clarity not being a commodity eagerly sought in the Top 40—but it receives reverential notices. It also gets the Thompsons to America, Richard's first real visit in ten years, Linda's first ever. Their appearances become events. They are rites of passage for novitiates, acts of communion for initiates. The Thompsons in performance put on shows of acetylene brilliance, but these events for them are something else entirely. They are an ending.

The marriage has run aground. Further collaborations are uncertain. Shoot Out the Lights may have to stand as the summing up of one of the most extraordinary creative partnerships hi rock. There is between the partners now the usual portion of blame and bitterness and confusion. All the clarity comes in Richard's music. He sings: "It's so hard to find/ Who's going to cure/ The Heart of a Man in Need." Linda sings: "It's only the pain/ That's keeping you sane/ And gives you the mind to travel on." And together: "Let me ride on/ The Wall of Death/ ... This is the nearest/ To being alive."

Shoot Out the Lights seems at times to be not so much a record at all as a kind of

Pirandellian reflecting pool. Are the songs refractions of a fractured relationship, or are the Thompsons re-enacting and reliving the songs? Is it life that is caught in the chorus, or the people? "Richard has a very spiritual side of him," Linda explains. "I think in a lot of ways he is scared of the nonspiritual side of him, so he tends to gravitate toward something that's spiritual to help him from going completely over the top. He just does everything with a vengeance, with a vengeance." The memory of a line from the Thompsons' Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? dances across the conversation ("She used to live life with a vengeance") as Linda continues, "He was a vegetarian for years and years and wouldn't wear leather. Then he became a Muslim, and we had to go to this Islamic commune in London and give all our money away, give all our clothing away. And now he loves this woman. With a vengeance."

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