Richard Thompson could have been a busker at Stonehenge. In the stoic voice and coiled guitar of the British singer-songwriter lie a hundred timeless, conflicting emotions: lung-bursting optimism, crippling bleakness (”life is a card game you soon have to leave”), longings for both temptation and stability, wry jokiness, and intense, unrequited love. Those qualities have remained steadfast through 25 years of music making, starting with Thompson’s days with seminal folk-rock ragamuffins Fairport Convention through solo albums that made him a beloved cult icon. Now Watching the Dark, a 47-song boxed set, winds its way through all those years, from a few stately Fairport tunes to feedback-throbbing numbers like ”Shoot Out the Lights” to an almost astounding exhibit of tender ballads, folk instrumentals, and careening guitar attacks.
Newcomers daunted by the prospect of a boxed set may want to start with earlier Thompson albums (also on Hannibal) like I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1973) or the scorching Shoot Out the Lights (1982), both made with ex-wife Linda. For a broader picture, though, Watching the Dark is a full, and fulfilling, portrait of the artist as, to quote a Thompson song title, an ”old man inside a young man.” A-