On Second Thought
Richard and Linda Thompson - Shoot Out the Lights

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Richard and Linda Thompson's 1982 masterpiece, Shoot Out the Lights, is a celebration of love gone sour. Like all great works, its themes are at once specific and universal. For the Thompson’s, the specifics were calamitous: while working on this, the duo's final album, Richard fell in love with an American and moved to New York. The couple separated just before the US tour in support of this work. That the tour went on as planned is a testament to the duo's professionalism. It's also entirely appropriate. What better way to celebrate this bitter, cathartic work than to stage bitter, cathartic concerts?

Not surprisingly, the eight songs on this disk (a ninth was added for the CD reissue) can—and often do—function as tea leaves to Thompson devotees, offering up clues that uncover the secrets behind this most public of breakups. Titles like "Don't Renege on Our Love," "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed," and "Wall of Death" certainly feed this impulse, as do lyrics (from "A Man in Need") like, "I packed my rags / Went down the hill / Left my dependents / A-lying still." There is, in short, a reason to read this work as autobiographical.

But this work is not about the Richard and Linda soap opera; if anything, that's just the superficial context. Rather, the album is about the pain, the struggle, and the joy that accompany any relationship, any experience that involves taking a chance and trusting or devoting one's self to someone else. A breakup is painful, yes, but pain is a great teacher, and the lessons we learn through suffering are often more rewarding than those learned through success. These are simple, even obvious thoughts, but most of the world's great art is based on such premises. Shoot Out the Lights is great art, no matter how you gauge such a thing, for it understands both the simplicity and complexity of human emotions, and dares to address these emotions head-on. It understands pain and sympathizes with those who suffer; it also recognizes that such pain is fleeting, and any recovery must be met with kindness, forgiveness, and laughter.

These sentiments are best captured on two of the work's finest songs. The first, the Linda-voiced ballad, "It's Just the Motion," uses the ocean's cyclical ebb and flow to offer solace to those in pain. Behind Richard's beautiful guitar accompaniment, Linda softly sings:
Blown by a hundred winds
Knocked down a hundred times
Rescued and carried along
Beaten and half-dead and gone
And it's only the pain
That's keeping you sane
And gives you the mind to travel on
Pain, the song suggests, gives our lives meaning, even if that meaning is simply to defy those that would wish us harm. It's a disturbing song, with its laundry list of ways to become a loser, but it's ultimately a song of hope, a song that asks the sufferer to accept the pain for what it is: part of life.

Where "Just the Motion" uses the ocean as a metaphor, the album's final track, "Wall of Death," uses an amusement park analogy to emphasize the pleasures of those fast rides that scare the hell out of us, as opposed to the rides that just let us float along contentedly. "You can waste your time on the other rides," both Thompson’s sing in unison, "but this is the nearest to being alive / Let me take my chances on the wall of death." Better to go out in a blaze of glory, the song suggests, than to sit around waiting for your heart to stop ticking. It's seems like a morbid song, but it really isn't. Richard Thompson, the songwriter, is not wishing for death; rather, he's embracing the very life that has brought him both fame and failure, success and suffering. The message, in short, is simple: enjoy the ride.

It's probably not a coincidence that my first encounter with Shoot Out the Lights stems from a painful experience in my own life. The album was given to me by my then-girlfriend, who worked at a record store and could get good deals on music any time she wanted. She gave me the disk one day in March, and a month later she had dumped me for a guy who played guitar in a band called (no joke) The Laughing Dickheads. That was well over ten years ago, but I still remember the emotional residue of that breakup: the emptiness, the dry throat, and the loss of appetite that I felt for weeks afterwards. Experiences like this are painful for anyone, and I still remember just about every ounce of that pain. But I also appreciate that pain for what it was: my introduction to adult life. Besides, it was through my relationship with that woman that I met, fell in love with, and eventually married my wife. As painful as that experience was for me to go through, I cannot imagine my life today without it.

Shoot Out the Lights is the soundtrack for anyone who has ever suffered and survived. It is a work created by two artists at the very moment when their personal and professional relationships were falling apart; rather than letting all that pain and suffering destroy them, they managed to channel those emotions and their shared experiences into the creation of this, one of the finest rock albums of all time.

By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2003-09-01
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