Richard Thompson Ship To Shore Review: Fairport maestro sails once more for sadder shores

Folk rock Sisyphus Richard Thompson rolls his ball of gloom back to the top of the hill on 19th solo album, Ship to Shore.

Richard Thompson

by Jim Wirth |
Updated on

Richard Thompson

Ship To Shore



Spidering his way into the bleakest corner of his first album in six years, Richard Thompson sees through the eyes of a soldier struggling with PTSD on the quietly crushing The Fear Never Leaves You. “Numb is heaven, oblivion wealth,” sings the 75-year-old master of the dark arts in his customary hangdog fashion. “The spring never uncoils itself.”

A folk-rock Sisyphus with a guitar that tends to speak its mind infinitely clearer than he ever can, the lugubrious Fairport Convention founder has once more rolled his immense ball of gloom to the top of the hill for Ship To Shore. It is a record about defeat, despair and humiliation delivered with an unsettling avuncular twinkle, and a lingering sense that the moments when his spring is wound at its tightest might also be the ones where Thompson feels the most alive.

If fellow folk-rock boomers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon have roamed genres, striving to update their profiles, Thompson’s mighty reputation rests on an absolute determination not to broaden his horizons. Since the release of his debut solo LP, Henry The Human Fly, in 1972, his model-railway sized musical universe has never really expanded. He likes British folk, pre-Beatles rock’n’roll, a tiny amount of early R&B, Arabic music and psych-pop (he recently told MOJO that the Left Banke’s awesome debut is one of his faves), and rarely ventures far beyond his comfort zone. It’s a small ‘c’ conservatism that he shares with such painfully awkward paradigms of British songwriting as Ray Davies, Bryan Ferry, Robyn Hitchcock, Robert Smith and Morrissey, and one that has helped to bring him perhaps the largest collection of four-star album reviews in pop history.

Ship To Shore does not strive to change that narrative. After such a long break from recording, there was the possibility that this new record might mark a change of tack, a Time Out Of Mind-style reckoning with mortality, maybe. Instead, it’s a collection that finds comfort in more familiar sensations: inertia, existential dread, and romantic disappointments from the mid-1960s. Be reassured: it’s a winning combination every time.

The four horsemen of Thompson’s apocalypse ride into view on the death’s head ceilidh opener, Freeze. “Another day without a dream, without a hope, without a scheme, another day that finds you crawling on your knees,” he mutters, standing by meekly and watching the warmth being sucked out of the world around him.

Spartan and unshowy, The Fear Never Leaves You brings that chill closer to home, Thompson’s guitar jangling like jailer’s keys as he ponders horrors that cannot be unseen. It’s a piece of under-writing on a par with such personal triumphs as Roll Over Vaughan Williams, When The Spell Is Broken or his Iraq War grotesque, Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.

The beastly big world keeps scratching at the windows on Ship To Shore. Donald Trump gets caught in Thompson’s crosshairs on Life’s A Bloody Show (“Keep on boasting, pound your chest, you always knew you were the best”), while avaricious predators circle the weak and the dying on his hokey trad song The Old Pack Mule.

Thompson’s sympathy for the vulnerable and the broken is – one suspects – one that comes from bitter experience. However, if his memoir Beeswing, published in 2021, cautiously opened the book on his complicated upbringing and the trauma of losing his girlfriend Jeannie Franklin in the 1969 road accident that killed Fairport drummer Martin Lamble, Thompson’s songs on Ship To Shore are a reminder that the great psychic wounds of his life may have been inflicted when he was a tongue-tied teenager in Muswell Hill.

Ship To Shore is a record about defeat despair and humiliation delivered with an unsettling avuncular twinkle.

 Over a rockabilly thump, Trust laments the impossibility of negotiating the tight bends of a romantic relationship without skidding into the fence, but the language he uses is very much that of a someone who recently had a paper round. “No one told me love’s so complicated, dreams get so frustrated, romance is overrated.”

Turnstile Casanova confronts more of the agony of love 1964-style, as Thompson finds himself being shunned in favour of what seems to be a leather-jacketed lothario at the local Gaumont. “This ain’t right, crying all night my mind’s broken all to pieces,” he laments. “She says she will, then she says she won’t, my confusion just increases.”

The sense of rejection is more profound on the Forever Change-ling The Day I Give In (“you don’t want me, you think I’m something tainted”), but Thompson is a glutton for emotional punishment. Another ex from the id emerges on the dreamworldly Lost In The Crowd; as major chords spin into minor ones, Thompson hears the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech once more. She begs him not to follow, but he does anyway only to find her dissolving into thin air.

 There is only one real love song on Ship To Shore, and even that is a slightly wary one. Thompson has said that Singapore Sadie is a stylized portrait of his third wife Zara Phillps (who also features in his backing band here). As seafaring violins scrape in the background, Thompson depicts his dream girl as granite-hard and invulnerable, an impassive power source to be revered – feared even.

It is messy psycho-sexual terrain, but pretty much standard for Thompson. The world his songs depict can feel forbidding and grim, but that feeling of hostile elements shivering Thompson’s timbers is something reassuring here.

He signs off with the cheery plod of We Roll, a hymn to his musical life on the open road. “Must be crazy but I’m doing it again, suitcase living since I don’t know when,” he sings, but Ship To Shore underlines that there’s comfort to be had in familiar discomforts. It is steady and sturdy, watchfully buttoned-up, most of the messy emotional stuff happening a long way below the surface. Thompson’s extraordinary, lyrical guitar playing squirts out in occasional Day-Glo flashes, but the magic remains in his ability to keep his little microcosmos tightly marshalled. Bleak midwinter 4 EVA; spring forever unsprung.

Track list:


The Fear Never Leaves You

Singapore Sadie


The Day That I Give In

The Old Pack Mule

Turnstile Casanova

Lost In The Crowd


Life’s A Bloody Show

What’s Left To Lose

We Roll

Ship To Shore is out now on New West.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Rough Trade | HMV

Photo: David Kaptein

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