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Richard Thompson – Ship to Shore, a review

On Ship to Shore, the masterful Richard Thompson once again dons his emotional weatherbeater and sets sail over choppy waters.

Release Date
31 May 2024
Richard Thompson - Ship to Shore
Richard Thompson's first album in six years, Ship to Shore, serves as a poignant reminder of his enduring presence in the music scene. After 20 solo albums and significant contributions to folk music, this album highlights his distinctive voice and masterful guitar playing. The album explores themes of emotional paralysis and introspection while celebrating his love for eclectic musical styles. Ship to Shore mixes rock, folk, and a reflective narrative, perhaps signaling a not-too-distant end to Thompson's continued musical voyage.

Why might a seasoned adventurer radio from ship to shore? Could it be a cry for help? A warning to fellow sailors? Or just a reminder to everyone that they’re still out there, bobbing about? You feel that Richard Thompson, on his first album in six years, falls firmly into the latter category. It’s a don’t-you-forget-about-me plea. 

Not only does Thompson want to remind everyone that he’s still adventuring, he wants everyone to know just how wide and vast his love of music continues to be. He is waving, not drowning. 

After 20 solo albums and countless contributions to some of the best-loved folk music of the last 100 years, it’s reassuring to have another message beamed in from the Thompson ocean. His voice remains as singular as ever, his guitar playing as dextrous, and his ability to allow his half to become a greater whole, when placed next to a feminine voice, as pleasing as it has ever been. 

Initially, perhaps Ship to Shore wears its rock-ist tendencies a little too heavily for some. Michael Jerome’s thumping drums and a Big Rock (with a capital B and a capital R) guitar threaten to overwhelm ‘Freeze’, the tale of a man too scared to move on, and some fine lyrics are almost lost beneath the waves. What sounds like a mandolin gasps for air, a tiny piece of folkie detritus in a crashing swell. It is the backing vocals of Zara Phillips that buoys the whole, rescuing it from the boys. Her voice, again and again through Ship to Shore, casts a lighthouse glow. 

If ‘Freeze’ tells us of an emotional paralysis, so ‘The Fear Never Leaves You’ touches on similar themes of PTSD and crippling damage. Here Thompson is more melancholy, his guitar icy, glacial. There’s still something big lurking but it’s more an iceberg than a rock this time, all depth and malevolence. Once again though, Phillips is hypnotic until, finally, Thompson lets fly with a guitar solo. The pounding numbness is shaken off; whatever was skulking around in his subconscious has been partly exorcised. 

From a sense of introversion and struggle, Thompson gives us one of his finest character studies of recent years. ‘Singapore Sadie’ was the first single taken from Ship to Shore and has been a part of his live set for a little while. David Mansfield’s bouncy, zest-filled fiddle provides a festival-flavoured spark, the first outward hints of something a little more folkie, that allows Thompson’s pen portrait to explode into life. There’s the perfect encapsulation of a person with “keeps you guessing/like Monroe or Grable”, the layers of understanding, the wry sense that whoever he’s describing is more glamorous, more mysterious – probably better – than he deserves. If this person inspires celestial choirs, then Thompson’s tune barely contains the glee that ‘Sadie’ brings. 

If Phillips is the muse here, and according to our recent Richard Thompson interview she is, then this is a wide-eyed declaration of love. Thompson can’t hide the huge smile behind his hand. It’s playful and fun and almost nudges the listener with a “will you look at her” wonder. After a cool pop start it leaps about with a puppy-ish optimism, rhyming “munches” with “lunches”, observing that her “hands are clean, but her mouth is dirty”. There’s almost a teenage awe reflected through the eyes of an old salt. In truth, it’s sometimes tricky to know whether he’s delirious or terrified by her; again, much like a teenager.

When Ship to Shore keeps its eclecticism in mind it is brilliant. ‘The Old Pack Mule’ has a been-walking-for-days, sunbaked quality, it’s almost a desert blues with a snake-charmer groove. Rooted in tradition, there’s a languid plod elevated by those Phillips backing vocals. ‘The Day That I Give In’ is downbeat, too, but has a lovely Spanish acoustic swish and Thompson in fine voice. As with much of the album, there is a palpable feeling that this song was recorded ‘as live’ in the room; it gives the whole thing a genuine immediacy.

While built on a straight-forward rock riff, ‘Turnstile Casanova’ is a sprightly jig, a welcome bit of folk-rock from someone who has done it so effortlessly in the past. If the tune allows for skirts to be swirled then they mask a darker lyrical core. Thompson has always been fantastic at wrapping the serious up with a toe-tapping bow and he excels here. You can see where Mark Knopfler nicked most of his best guitar-based ideas as ‘Trust’ speeds off down a bluesy highway and ‘Lost in a Crowd’ twinkles beautifully. ‘Life’s A Show’ shimmers with big-top glamour before descending into a queasy, woozy waltz. After all of these years, Thompson seems to be fizzing with ideas and it is an absolute joy.

Even so, much could be made of the last two tracks on Ship to Shore. Both feel like the end of something, a valedictory wave to the crowd. ‘What’s Left to Lose’ is mid-tempo and full of wonderful guitar work. It’s reflective but carries a fabulous chorus and Phillips croons magnificently. There is something desperate, almost final to “what’s left to lose, everything I had is gone”. It’s not the end though. ‘We Roll’ feels like an end-of-the-night, end-of-the-tour lament, a looking back and a bowing out. Fortunately, Thompson stresses that this isn’t so but there are few songs that carry the feeling that things are coming to an end better than this one.

On Ship to Shore, Thompson has cast his net far and wide. There might be plenty of solid rock tunes but there are enough acoustic flourishes and eclectic twinkles to make it well worth tuning into his frequencies. It doesn’t look as though this old mariner is ready to give up his sea legs just yet. 

Ship to Shore by Richard Thompson is released on May 31st and can be ordered from all good music stockists.