2/14/2013 (updated 2/17/2013)

Richard Thompson Electric

Richard Thompson "or, more properly, Richard Thompson, Esq., OBE " is arguably the finest white guitarist of his generation. He is also, sometimes, our greatest living songwriter. The former is a full-time position; the latter, nearly so.

And Thompson is the quintessential cult artist, with a notoriously devoted fanbase; it would be easy for him to coast on his accomplishments. But even at 64 years old, after 45 years in the music business, beginning with a stint in the pioneering British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, he's still swinging for the fences every time he comes up" and connecting more often than not.

When he's hitting on all cylinders, Thompson manages a depth of affect that complements his vast musical reach; on acoustic or electric, in any of a dozen styles ranging from English folksong and trad jazz to Arab-inflected garage rock, he can cut you to the quick, spitting vitriol, conjuring nostalgia or heartbreak with a perfect couplet or a handful of notes.

And there's plenty here for new fans and veteran Thompson-watchers alike - although I suspect the two demographics will focus on different things. Newcomers will likely be taken with Thompson's gift for narrative and the unhinged fire of the guitar solos; longtime fans will appreciate Buddy Miller's production, how he finds new nuance in the dependable song stylings. Gone are the sackbuts and crumhorns and Tom Waits-style funhouse keyboards of Thompson's older records; Electric is arranged for a lean power trio, with occasional backing vocals and fiddle, and the subtle details take on a greater importance.

Many niche artists are content to preach to the converted, and Thompson could certainly do that if he wanted. For the last decade he's had great success independently financing his own recordings and licensing the albums to various distributors, which gives him a bigger piece of the back end and lets him retain full ownership of the songs. His songs are much-covered, and he remains a popular touring draw, does a brisk business in fan-club and boutique-label CDs and DVDs sold only at live shows, and runs a week-long songwriting camp in the Catskills every summer. He's even done the rock 'n' roll cruise thing. He's got nothing to prove to anyone, anymore; he has the Ivor Novello Award, the honorary doctorate, and the knighthood under his belt, after all, and could easily devote himself to esoterica like the "1000 Years of Popular Music" project, or his recent theater piece Cabaret of Souls. Instead, he's made one of the finest pop albums of his career, remaining stubbornly himself even while winning new fans. And for that we can only be thankful.

Jack Feerick, Pop Dose