Front Parlour Ballads
here is nothing new about Front Parlour Ballads, but it is a magnificent artifact, so carefully written and so meticulously sung (not in the tidy sense of that word, but in the proper things in its proper places sense—he makes an album with all the devotion a blacksmith gives to horseshoes or a cooper gives to barrels.) In the end, he is doing the same thing that Billy Bragg tried to do on the strange 2002 album England, Half English, namely plumb the sexual and aesthetic senses of Anglo-Saxon males, finding something post-modern in a category that is thousands of years old. On the cover of the album Thompson is playing along with one of Picasso’s trumpeters, a Vermeer clavichord player, a Tudor flutist, a Fra Angelico angel playing lute, a Roman fresco, a caricature of the African American banjo playing minstrel, and someone who looks very much like Mozart.
The very first verse on the very first song seems to bear this out: "He was a species on the verge of extinction / She was an Air New Zealand hostess." That juxtaposition, between something that seems very old and fragile versus something very new and modern and sexy is then countered with a number of famous couples: "Like Rawicz and Landauer, like Pinky and Perky, like Porgy and Bess". (For the record R&L were Polish violinists, P&P were pig puppets on the BBC during the 60s, and P&B were the tragic heroes of Gershwin's only opera. I can’t figure out what they have in common either.) Is Thompson just playing with us lyrically? Or does have a meaning beneath it all?
Some are not nearly as difficult; there are a couple of small and dark songs, which are nearly perfect in their minute detailing. “For Whose Sake” is somewhere between a dirge and lullaby, reminding the listener how close death is to sleep. He also asks the question: "For whose sake / Did I learn Real from True." He gets closest to the answer in the song “Cressida,” a lovely small and dark thing, short and broken, barely 60 words long. The classical allusion weaves its way as far back as the Greeks, through the Romans, to Chaucer, and Shakespeare. That we learn the whole point of the story in such a small space is a marvel. Traded back and forth between two warring nations, losing autonomy, and doing what she needed to do to survive, Cressida is portrayed as one wily slut, changing sides when it suits her best.
“Row, Boys, Row,” may be about galley slaves in the Viking era, and it has that dry wit ("Seven years of bad luck / Should have read the small print"), but it also talks about something that may be a cryptic commentary on late modern capitalism ("Is it wise to be asking for a morsel more / When you see what they done to them what asked before? / Is it wise to be kneeling with your arse poking free? / Is it wise to be bleeding in a shark filled sea?") The best thing about “Row,” is that it’s the most rousing song on the album, maintaining as steady beat as one imagines the galley slaves did.
The next song, “The Boys of Mutton Street,” is resonant of all sorts of terrorism in London. It has shades of Guy Fawkes, with the sing-song nursery rhyme rhythm connecting the boys at school, and boys at war. The chorus runs "We're the boys of mutton street, Mutton street, Mutton street, we give no ground," sounding eerily reminiscent of “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November!” Thompson rewards this reading—"Now Bonfire Night / It was a sight / The bonfire, how it blazed / It nearly set the street alight / So they called the fire brigade / The fire brigade got busy / But we cut the horses clean."
From this, he continues with love songs. The long and low “Precious Ones,” which talks about the narrators failure as a lover and a companion. The disappointing “A Solitary Life,” which gets a few digs in at trainspotters and the like, but seems to be have done a thousand times by a thousand different peoples (think of it as The Collected Work of Nick Hornby, Anthologized) The song says nothing new, but does it well.
This album is difficult, complicated, pretentious, infuriating, inconsistent, and asks more questions then it answers. However, that's the case with most of humanity. It's interesting musically, he sings well, it’s well constructed, and it has one song that should someday enter the canon (“Cressida”). It has one song that I cannot give a fair listen to because of the current social situation (“Boys of Mutton Street”). It has a couple marred by cleverness (“When We Were Boys at School” and “Let it Blow”) and the rest is pretty mediocre. But, then again, the standard is a bit higher for a talent like Thompson.
Reviewed by: Anthony Easton
Reviewed on: 2005-09-07