Whoever said you have to die to get to heaven hasn’t listened to Linda Thompson’s new release. Although that might sound like hyperbole I’m willing to stand by my bombastic declaration of love for Linda’s Versatile Heart. I adore it, I adore her and after nearly 2 decades without a release from this divine Diva of British folk we are now blessed with her 2nd release in 5 years.
Thompson career has defined by her wise choice of collaborators including Martin Carthy, Sandy Denny and, most notably, ex-husband Richard Thompson. Once again she has the good sense to team up with writers and musicians who recognize her varied strengths and who better to know this than family. Thompson’s main collaborator is her son, Teddy Thompson, who co-writes 4 songs with his mother and proves to be as capable as his father in writing devastating one-liners that hit their target mark on as in the title track. (You’re lucky you can choose who you love and lose, now that’s an art.) The two team up for the languid and bluesy ballad “Do Your Best For Rock ‘n Roll” which Teddy captured in one take in his Brooklyn studio. The pair’s best work is on the heartbreaker “The Way I Love You” which features Martha Wainwright’s backing vocals. Any mother who has had to rely on the support of her child for comfort and then experienced the letting go can’t help but be effected by this moving account of parental love and loss.
On the lighter side, Thompson’s daughter Kamila gets into the act with the sardonic “Nice Cars” a warning for women who develop too close a relationship with their car (“loved you more than my 3 children, now you’ve gone …”).
Rufus Wainwright, who performed with Thompson on her 2002 release Fashionably Late, offers a stunningly beautiful song appropriately entitled “Beauty” which he wrote for Thompson. It is one of his best compositions to date and Thompson is joined by the British singer Antony for this paean to beauty’s power to blind us to the goodness in the world.
Perhaps the most emotionally devastating song on Versatile Heart is a song written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. “Day After Tomorrow” is a letter written by a homesick G.I. to his family. The sad wisdom and subtle confusion conveyed in this song says more than any editorial you’re likely to read this or any other year. I can’t imagine anyone else putting this song across the way Linda Thompson does. Through her gentle tone, free of accusation, full of yearning, she paints a portrait of a man reminiscing about the boyhood he so recently left behind.
Linda Thompson’s style is steeped in British Folk ballad traditions and she takes on the classic “Katy Cruel” with the experience of a master of the genre. But her style is also universal. The exquisite tone of her voice, her subtle emotional phrasing she has honed to perfection and Versatile Heart ranks among the finest folk releases of the past decade.