Lots of musicians are diligent researchers of old songs, from folkies learning ancient ballads to hip-hop beat-makers flipping two forgotten bars on a garage-sale 45 into a funk symphony, but Richard Thompson has always had an especially scholarly air about him. Not in the ostentatious way of someone like Paul Simon, who wears his erudition on his cardigan sleeve; instead, Thompson has the modest, casually slung expertise of a well-adjusted fanatic. He's been plundering the musical past since he was the firebrand teenage guitarist for British folk-rockers Fairport Convention, digging into traditional material like the ballad "Matty Groves," from Fairport's 1969 classic Liege & Lief, and his own material often dresses old modes in new clothes. This has frequently resulted in the word "timeless" being affixed to Thompson's work, an effect helped along by his singing voice, a phlegmatic bellow that often sounds at once both jumpy and arthritic.
In a sense, Thompson's most recent album lives up to his fans' "timeless" talk far more than any of his previous work—at least, in a very literal sense. The concept of 1000 Years of Popular Music (recorded in concert, released on Thompson's own Beeswing imprint, and sold through his Web site) is in its title. According to the disc's liner notes, Thompson got the idea when Playboy asked him to submit a list of his 10 favorite songs of the millennium. "Hypocrites," he writes, "they don't mean millennium, they mean twenty years—I'll call their bluff and do a real thousand-year selection." Eventually, that list mutated into an "evening with" acoustic performance that he's been occasionally airing for a couple of years now. (He'll take it next to Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, Oct. 23-24.)
Like any good cult artist—Thompson ranks with the likes of Alex Chilton, Gram Parsons, and Captain Beefheart for his influence on alt-rock luminaries—he knows he can charge up the wazoo and the faithful will still flock. (My copy cost $29, shipping included.) Thompson is a textbook cult hero, and few of his fans are casual. The closest he's ever come to having a hit was "I Feel So Good," from 1991's Rumor and Sigh, which got some minor radio play during the early '90s alt-rock bubble, and he spent that decade on a major label, Capitol, despite relatively low sales, before releasing The Old Kit Bag earlier this year on the smart pop-rock indie label spinART. 1000 Years isn't the first time he's released live recordings or rarities to his hardcore fan base, but its Net-centric availability suggests that he'll be doing a lot more of it in the future.
The album opens with " Sumer Is Icumen In," identified by Thompson as "the oldest known round in the English language … written down by John Farnsette, a monk at Reading Abbey, in the mid-13th century," and moves up to the present with a version of Britney Spears' "Oops! I Did It Again." Thompson jokes in the liner notes that "I am unqualified to sing 98% of the material here, but me having a go could be considered part of the fun." Things get hairy at times, though, particularly during the Who's "Legal Matter," in which Thompson rushes several lines irritably, like he's singing to an annoying neighbor who won't get off his lawn.
If the concept presented Thompson with the opportunity to get out of himself for a while, it's probably inevitable that he'd find his way back in: In the tradition of covers albums like Yo La Tengo's Fakebook and John Prine's In Spite of Ourselves, what's striking about 1000 Years is how cleanly other people's songs line up with Thompson's own. Recast the lyrics in English, throw in a solo or two, and 16th-century Italian cathedral composer Orazio Vecchi's frisky "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo" could have been on just about any of Thompson's solo albums. Ditto the English music hall number "Waiting at the Church" ("I can't get away to marry you today/ My wife won't let me"). And on "Blackleg Miner," a Durham folk chant about working in the coal mine (Thompson says the song is of indeterminate origin), it's hard not to hear echoes of the refrain from 1982's "Back Street Slide" in the way he chows down on the phrase "The black-a-leg mine-ah."
What's most interesting—and surprising—about the rock-era material Thompson tackles is that he usually falls flat on exactly the songs you'd figure a white, middle-aged Englishman would excel at (Squeeze's "Tempted," the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long," neither of which he has the voice for) and aces what would, on paper, look to be the disc's most curious selections: Prince's "Kiss" and "Oops! I Did It Again." "Kiss" works partly because he sings it straight ("strategically … about an octave lower than Prince," he notes) and partly because Prince's arrangement was so spare to begin with that it's impossible to strip down. Thompson's phrasing also gives the song an undercurrent of pain that escapes both the pure-pleasure tease of the 1986 original and the lusty hamminess of the 1988 version by Tom Jones and the Art of Noise.
Even more striking is " Oops! I Did It Again" which receives much the same treatment. Thompson doesn't exactly locate the song's heart of darkness—it's already right on the surface of Britney Spears' version, whether you feel like locating it or not. But his panic-stricken vocal gives the song a tautness that the original lacked, in part because he sounds less like the vixen of the lyrics than the poor sucker she's tricked into believing she loves him, parroting her words in disbelief. At one point, Thompson leads the audience in a singalong of the song's chorus; the microphones barely pick it up, so his bare acoustic guitar comping dominates, to spooky effect. Being able to keep mistakes like that intact is one advantage of putting out your own records; another is that in this case, the error actually makes the recording stronger. For all of Thompson's village-entertainer affect, he sounds like he's singing to himself.