Over at From Here To Obscurity, I listed my top 25 albums of 2007. Discerning readers may notice that neither Richard Thompson's Sweet Warrior nor Linda Thompson's Versatile Heart are on my list. The reason is simple: I didn't love those albums as much as I loved the ones that made my list.
I liked Linda's album more than Richard's. Versatile Heart was lovely and sweet and touching, although I think if it had been her 18th solo album instead of her 3rd, I may not have found it as touching. Still, as is, Linda is the best female vocalist of her generation and she's working with top-notch material. There's not many surprises, but the album was overall a thing of beauty that would have made my list if it had been a little longer.
Sweet Warrior was Richard's 18th solo studio album. Like many of Thompson's albums from the last 15 years, it has a handful of standout tracks ("Dad's Gonna Kill Me" being the most prominent killer tune here), a few solid - if forgettable - songs, and some tracks that probably needed a little more time to cook. Among the things I ponder in the book are diminishing returns for aging musicians. Richard's been making solid music for so damn long now that I think he probably doesn't have as finely-tuned an internal quality detector as he had during the earlier part of his career. This isn't to say that he produces dreck - far from it, in fact. He somehow manages to write at least one (and up to three or four) great tracks every time he puts out an album.
In the book, I compare him to Neil Young, who has produced about twice as many solo studio albums with what I think are greater diminishing returns. Young's prime was roughly concurrent to Thompson's back in the 70s. Young had a similar resurgance back in the late 80s/early 90s. But Young is doing well if he manages to get a single great track onto an album these days.
Now, both Thompson and Young are career artists who need to support their families and provide for their legacy, and both are deserving of whatever accolades they get. The fact that Thompson can produce a very good EP's worth of material every couple of years (even if it is padded within a full album's worth of songs) is a testament to his lasting talent and I will continue to buy every album when it is released and see the man's live shows when I can (although I should confess that I skipped his September show in Austin because I was superbusy with the manuscript, so I felt like I spent all my free time with the man's work, anyway, and didn't want to weigh myself down further).
There's a larger question here about how the past plays against the present for pop musicians. The Mekons' 2007 album Natural made my list, after all, and they're on their 17th studio album. There's two differences for the Mekons, I think: the audience and the collective. The Mekons have managed to stick around without ever losing their ties to the avant-garde or their capacity to take 90 degree turns, partially because the people who are the Mekons are determined to maintain their artiness and partially because Mekons fans love them for their capacity to surprise. When Richard Thompson or Neil Young have taken 90 degree turns in the past, they've left a significant chunk of their audience behind. Their fans don't want surprise, but instead more of the same. Thompson and Young have a financial disincentive to challenge listeners, which explains why Thompson's more challenging music is usually limited to side projects. The Mekons also have the advantage of several songwriters with driving visions and a commitment to collective principles to minimize conflict. Thompson and Young are solo songwriters, driven by only their own interests and obsessions.
So I guess this is a long way of saying that as a listener, I value surprise and novelty in the short term more than new twists on the same, so familiarity actually works against an artist in my aesthetic. On the other hand, in the long run I value the passion that leads to surprise and novelty, which is why I consider Shoot Out The Lights, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver, and Rumor & Sigh among my favorite albums.