By JIM FUSILLI
Recorded at Buddy Miller's house in Nashville, Tenn., Richard Thompson's "Electric" (New West), out this week, finds Mr. Thompson front and center in a sparse setting, his guitar the only solo melodic instrument. That's cause for joy: Mr. Thompson, 63, is a superior guitarist who always plays with a clear tone and exquisite taste, and provides no small amount of head-snapping surprises—features present in abundance on "Electric."
During a recent phone conversation, Mr. Thompson, who was in Miami and about to leave to perform on a cruise ship as it toured the British Virgin Islands, said he chose Mr. Miller to produce for the sound he captures in his home studio. Mr. Miller recorded the session on tape rather than digitally, allowing a warmth to shine through. Nothing is cluttered, nor does anything compete with Mr. Thompson, whose voice hasn't lost a bit of its quality. "Electric" features Michael Jerome on drums, Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Mr. Miller on an unobtrusive rhythm guitar, and Stuart Duncan—who drops in on occasion—on fiddle.
"It's a good room for recording," Mr. Thompson said. "It has a slightly trashy sound." He added that he liked Mr. Miller's production on discs by the late Solomon Burke, Shawn Colvin and Robert Plant.
Back in September during the Americana Music Association's annual festivities—Mr. Thompson received the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award for his songwriting—Messrs. Thompson and Miller welcomed a handful of visitors to hear an early version of "Electric." In the sun-soaked room where the album was cut, Mr. Thompson stood behind rows of folding chairs and faced Mr. Miller's recording console, eyes closed as if lost in thought but swaying to the rhythm of the music. Every now and then, he'd jerk and grimace during a guitar solo, as if he were playing along in his mind. Asked to characterize the disc, the wry Mr. Thompson said, "It's somewhere between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins." He added, "Or Peter, Paul and Jimi"—a description that was close to accurate: Among Mr. Thompson's earliest influences is traditional folk music, and that is evident even when he is on electric guitar in a band setting. On "Stuck on the Treadmill," for example, he plays a beefy riff in unison with Mr. Prodaniuk, a technique that found its way into early heavy metal, but which Mr. Thompson said is common in Celtic folk. "Sally B." opens with Mr. Thompson singing and playing the same melody; again, a trait in Celtic music. With "less harmonic information," as he put it, there's more opportunity for a soloist to shine.
"Electric" fits well within the continuum of Mr. Thompson's career, which is nearing the half-century mark. As he's done in the past, Mr. Thompson programmed the album to unfold like a concert set. The opener, "Stony Ground," establishes the template for the uptempo numbers: Mr. Jerome's drums give off a flappy, rumbling sound as if the toms, rather than the snare, were the kit's centerpiece. Accompanied by tambourines and handclaps, the booming effect echoes in the midrange, encouraging, rather than competing with, the guitar.
As a songwriter, Mr. Thompson allows the listener to bear witness as his characters share their dark, private thoughts. In "My Enemy," a down-tempo ballad, he tells a first-person tale, with novelistic insight and immediacy, of a friendship between two stubborn men that was broken long ago: "Now we're just two old men on the brink each waiting for the other to blink / If I should lose you I'd be left with nothing but fate." He cleaves the chilling environment with a stinging solo that speaks of the narrator's bitterness.
Despite the album's title, Mr. Thompson also offers several quiet ballads, exhibiting his feathery touch on acoustic guitar. Alison Krauss and Mr. Duncan join in on the dreamlike "The Snow Goose." As Messrs. Jerome and Prodaniuk offer sympathetic support, Mr. Thompson provides a folk underpinning to "Another Small Thing in Her Favour" before adding his electric guitar for a tasty solo that may remind listeners how much Mark Knopfler borrowed from his predecessor.
In mid-March, Mr. Thompson begins a tour with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Mr. Thompson will perform in a trio setting, permitting him to revisit his exceptional catalog of compositions, including the songs of "Electric," which reveal how much he can do with abundant space.
A version of this article appeared February 6, 2013, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Still 'Electric' After All These Years.