Katie here, and you know that scene where the Somali pirates commandeer a ship in Captain Phillips? I saw the musician on the docket for this week and— well, I didn’t growl and circle my territory or anything, but let’s just say, I’m the captain now. I’ve often had my enthusiasm compared to puppies (usually pretty specific: “unbridled Border collie,”) and honestly, I should probably be either embarrassed or upset at the comparison— but in April, we had Teddy Thompson on the list for the Garden Sessions and guys—
I jumped up and down when I saw the schedule.
You know what? Puppies are cute, anyway. I’ll take it.
Teddy Thompson is a musician I’ve had more than a passing interest in for well over a decade. I’ve seen him with Rufus Wainwright, I’ve seen him with the Old 97’s, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him up close and personal playing his Garden Session. I bought the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack because of his work on it (particularly his version of “King of the Road”), and because of that, I learned I love Gustavo Santaolalla and his film scores— which was an entire genre of music I had largely ignored. I’m telling you this for a reason: when you become a Teddy Thompson fan, what happens is you actually become a bigger music fan. All kinds of music. His ability, style, and level of talent is such that it attracts brilliance: so follow me into the rabbit hole, friends. I’m going to take you on a guided tour of what it means to love Thompson by introducing you to a few songs— and once you’ve taken my hand, be prepared. This is a deep, dense, and exquisitely beautiful path.
I was stunned by the gorgeous melancholy of “Brand New” in April, especially since it echoes the emotions of an old favorite of mine, 2008’s “What’s This?!!” There are differences: in “Brand New,” Thompson acknowledges a relationship that has to end before he finds an emotional epiphany and in “What’s This?!!”, he’s much more overwhelmed to understand he’s become happy. But what was perhaps most remarkable to me was that he could write two beautiful songs that sound completely different, that both ask the universal question— “Is happiness possible for me? And if so, how?”, and that both elevate that question to the height of both ecstatic pop and thoughtful folk music. In “Brand New,” he slowly opens his life up to the listener, even though it’s very much written to the ex-partner:
I know that you’re fine,
But it’s gonna be hard to leave you behind
I got a brand new girl
She is my world these days
And she is good, and she tells the truth
So I do that too, as much as I can
The lyrics are so lovely, despite the acknowledgement that the person he’s addressing the song to isn’t in his life the way she once was, that it seems almost shocking when he slides into he slides into, “We made it through/ Like you do” and the chord change turns unexpectedly dark, it’s almost alchemy: you aren’t ready for the creeping, plucked guitar piece to suddenly be both comforting and dark, a mixture of classical and country stylings that seems almost as if two guitarists are playing at once. It’s easy to see in the video: he’s not even breaking a sweat. But the meticulous melody, the notes that walk you through the song, to the new car, to the new girl— they lead you here—
I got a brand new bag
It’s being happy, not sad
And I don’t really care, I just wanna have fun
I just want to feel whole under the sun
That might not seem like enough of a resolution for some people, but if you look at it the way I do— a decade later, instead of asking, “What’s this? Could I be happy?”, Thompson is asserting he’s decided to be happy, to have fun, to feel whole. He’s not just written a new song on the same topic: “Brand New” feels like two songs in one, a life left behind and a new, more honest, more deliberate life ahead. And to be fair, under the auspice of something being ‘brand new,’ it’s even more impressive: the topic might not be brand new to Thompson, but he found a way to write about something essential to the human experience— how we choose to process emotion— in a new way, despite having explored it lyrically before.
Besides, he can also write a song like “Heartbreaker Please:”
I don’t think it’s fair to have devoted so much space on the last song to lyrics and the way Thompson has evolved over a brilliant, layered career without having mentioned how full, warm, and gorgeous his voice is— but hey, I knew I had “Heartbreaker Please” coming up and I was hoping that I could make up for the obvious omission by calling your attention to the way he sings each chorus: pleading, like a man at the end of his rope, but his voice is still so full, it’s impossible to think he’s at the edge of his range. The words might seem simple: “Won’t you come back/ Heartbreaker, please?” But when he hits a higher note and fries the edge slightly and then hits an even higher note only to soar over the rest of the piece, he’s able to control not only the way he creates longing in the speaker but also the way he controls your breathing. I remember sitting and watching him play through this song, and actually having almost jumped when he hit the bridge.
Again, how reductive: how can a Teddy Thompson song be turned into one element? Vocal timbre? Guitar tone? His emotive quality? The lyrical ability? It’s silly, almost, for me to try to put into words how outrageously, seemingly effortlessly beautiful his music is without seeming hyperbolic.
But I’m not being hyperbolic. I’m not sure I’ve adequately expressed how magical it is to watch him play. “I get it,” you may think. “I’ve seen someone play guitar before.” If you’re thinking that, I dare you, come see Teddy Thompson in November, and tell me if you don’t suddenly believe maybe in a type of musical alchemy: if nothing else, a moment permanently suspended in time, beautiful and perfect, almost as if one person is playing two perfect songs at the same time.
PS. Adam wants me to tell you that you should listen to “What Now” from Teddy’s Garden Session too, if only because the whole set was just soooooo good that it seems a shame for you to miss any of it. So go to it people! And then get back here in November dammit!