Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Whenever anyone asks me for my favourite guitar albums* – as in, “which of your favourite records are the best and most thrilling when it comes to the guitar playing” – I usually have very little hesitation in singling out one album in particular, that is Richard and Linda Thompson’s valedictory 1982 masterpiece Shoot out the Lights: a record borne of painful and acrimonious personal circumstances, but that, of all that duo’s fantastic run of 1970s-80s albums, is generally regarded as their absolute finest. 

Shoot out the Lights is an album that I find myself returning to over and over again and that has lost little of its freshness and its ability to startle for me, even after a full decade or so of intense listening. I single it out as a great guitar album because as brilliant, and in fact as sublime, as the songwriting, the lyrics and the singing are on Shoot out the Lights – and trust me both Linda and Richard are absolutely at the top of their game here – it is Richard Thompson’s guitar that ultimately ensures the record’s immortality. 

Thompson’s playing on Shoot out the Lights represents a true marriage of profound artistic inspiration with a remarkable instrumental virtuosity and technique that foreswears any hint of flashiness or trace of superfluity, but that instead is always supple and alive: the grace and fluidity of Thompson’s lines characterised by an extraordinary sense of precision and focus. Thomson’s guitar playing always lends a striking, palpable sensuality to the songs on this record: songs that trace the breakdown and disintegration of a marriage that was also a wildly successful artistic partnership, though in the end the ache seems to have been primarily a bodily/physico-emotional one. The guitar’s electric resonances hint closely at past intimacies, at feelings since buried over in a furious tide of acrimony and accusation – the instrument serves as an unforgettable, furiously effective complement to Linda’s yearning-but-distant vocals in songs like “Walking on a Wire” and Richard’s gruffly desperate turn on “Man in Need”: ultimately raising these songs to a level of emotional eloquence that is rare, even among the best of Thompson’s folkish/singer songwriter peers.

Linda is dignified but broken throughout – weary beyond telling (“where’s the justice and where’s the sense?/when all the pain is on my side of the fence”) – her haunted vocals are a mixture of betrayal and utter resignation, while Richard’s vocals swing back and forth between bewilderment and rage (“Back Street Slide”). 

In the end, even though it’s the guitar that sets this album apart, the songwriting is just exceptional throughout – and if you’ve ever been curious as to why Richard Thompson is so often cited as one of our finest living songwriters then I really can’t think of a better place to start. 

*No-one’s ever actually asked me this, not yet anyway, but just humour me.