Richard Thompson opens his new album, "Dream Attic," by shouting: "I love kittens!" If that makes you spit out your coffee, you must be part of the cult audience that's nurtured this British songwriter's career -- stop-and-start as it's been -- from Fairport Convention in the '60s through the seminal albums he made later with his then-wife, Linda Thompson.
"It's a good line to start with," Thompson says. "It sets the tone for the rest of the record. It's a fluffy record."
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Not exactly. "Dream Attic" finds this sharp-witted lyricist taking stabs at Wall Street gamblers ("The Money Shuffle"), neo-hippies ("Burning Man"), Sting (probably, in "Here Comes Geordie"), modern-day murderers ("Sidney Wells") and the death of old friends ("A Brother Slips Away").
"The Money Shuffle," for instance -- in which he declares his feline love, a campaign promise of sorts -- is a boiling-mad protest song.
"The sub-prime meltdown was pretty gruesome," he says, referring to the mortgage mess that triggered America's recent economic near-collapse. "I got very angry at the greed of these people, the mindless greed. It made my blood boil. I had to say something."
"Dream Attic" is a live recording of 13 new songs. Instead of laboring over the songs for weeks in a studio, Thompson assembled his band (including multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn and violinist Joel Zifkin) and a small audience, then performed the new stuff for several nights in a row, cherry-picking the best performances for the record.
"I get a lot of feedback from audiences, saying they prefer the live versions of many of my songs," Thompson says. "Often in the studio, it's the first time you perform a song. Once you've been on the road for a while, the tempos change, you get more familiar, more comfortable with the song. I see their point. So I thought, let's pursue this to its next phase. We'll ditch the studio process and go straight from writing to live."
Thompson has never pulled his punches in his lyrics. His most acclaimed album with Linda, 1982's "Shoot Out the Lights" (which just received a deluxe reissue treatment this month from Rhino Handmade), scribbles tales direct from the open wounds of the couple's crumbling marriage. On "Dream Attic," Thompson eulogizes three unnamed friends ("I didn't want to say who they were -- some of them might be public figures") in "A Brother Slips Away," concluding to someone named Davy, "It breaks my heart that I will never see your face again." But he says he's able to transcend the painful subjects to perform such songs night after night.
"As you play a song, it becomes more generalized," Thompson says. "Whatever acute emotion that caused you to write the song, when performing it, you do inhabit and live the emotions -- but it isn't always the same emotion felt at the time of writing. It does evolve away somewhat. That means you can perform the older material and find ways to reinterpret it. If it's a good song, you're just happy to sing it at some level. It stops being pointedly about the other person. Linda and I have discussed it. We've always written songs about each other. I say, 'Linda, it's about you.' She says, 'Well, it's a good song.'"
In that sense, Thompson writes like one of his good friends, Loudon Wainwright, also known for intensely personal and detailed songwriting.
"He really is the prime example of how to use events in your life -- much more than I do, in fact -- as the origin for material," Thompson says. "It's because of his skill as a songwriter and his scrupulous honesty with himself. ... People like Joni Mitchell or Loudon, they're confessional but highly listenable. It's a fine line."