Thompson's upbeat tunes carry strange ideas


Richard Thompson is the sort of songwriter who gets quote a lot, particularly in reviews. Critics love taking close looks at his tart, wickedly detailed lyrics, marching them across the page as if all the power of Thompson's music could somehow be extracted from a few rhyming cadences.

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty silly idea. For one thing, focusing exclusively on the words means ignoring the music, an approach that seems to forget what separates lyrics from poetry in the first place; for another, nobody -- music critics included -- notices the words in a song before hearing the music.

At least, that's the way Richard Thompson sees it.

"With popular music, the first thing that hits you about a record is probably the sound, the second thing is probably the melody, and the last thing is probably the lyrics," he says, speaking over the phone from a New York hotel. "Which isn't necessarily a bad thing."

How so? Because the words on a recording generally don't sink in until after it has been played "about five or six times," says Thompson, the songwriter has the option of letting the music tell one story while the words tell another.

"Because of the way that is, you can actually be subversive in popular music," he says. "You can have a fairly upbeat tempo and kind of a major key melody and everything's rolling along nicely, and it's only after a few listenings that you begin to realize that the lyric's actually quite dark or quite subversive or strange. But it's already slipped in. You haven't been able to resist it, because you haven't quite realized what's going on.

"There's so many things you can do," he adds. "It isn't just music for under-21s anymore -- popular music is now a multigenerational, a very large format, and you can express strange ideas in popular music. A lot of people do it. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones expressed some very strange ideas in popular music, without people necessarily noticing."

Needless to say, Thompson does it all the time. His current single, "I Feel So Good," is a perfect example of the form, offering the listener a bright, buoyant melody and what seems, ++ upon first hearing it, to be a typical raise-some-hell, rock and roll lyric. Listen closer, though, and Thompson's character reveals himself, not as a fun-seeking youth, but a seething sociopath just out of jail and about to burst with pent-up aggression.

Talk about strange ideas. . .

Still, it's not Thompson's lyrical content that keeps singles like "I Feel So Good" out of the Top-40, so much as it is that Thompson's traditionalist bent doesn't blend well musically with the likes of Paula Abdul or Color Me Badd. But his following -- the sort of small-but-devoted audience generally associated with "cult" artists -- has grown despite his lack of obvious pop success.

"There's a lot of music out there that isn't necessarily on the radio, tons and tons and tons of it," he says, "and I'm one of those. But it's been very steady, without having any radio support. It's really just been a matter of touring. For the last 10 years, I've been touring very steadily, and every year it's got better. Every year I feel the performances have improved, and more and more people have come to the shows.

"It's been slow, but it's definitely climbing."

Richard Thompson

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion

Tickets: $22.50 reserved seats, $17.50 lawn.

Call: 625-1400 for information, 481-6000 for tickets.

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