In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week we asked, “What song reminds you of your dad?”
Some folks can’t stand dreary music when they’re feeling low; I’ve always been the opposite. A properly depressing tune can remind you that you’re not the first to suffer; it frames your own bummed-ness with some healthy perspective; and it makes you feel like you’ve got some company down there, wherever you are.
My dad was a lifelong fan of folk music, though “fan” doesn’t really convey the depths. He was more of an awesomely nerdy, mildly troubling obsessive—the kind who compulsively bought so many folk CDs and tapes he couldn’t possibly listen to them all. He’d drag me to folk festivals every summer, braving torrential rain and scorching sun in the endless quest for gentle music. I spent most of those years in quiet rebellion against my dad’s music, biding my time until I could escape to my bedroom and blast something obnoxious. In hindsight I was a stubborn little shit, pouting and grumbling through concerts whose only crime was preventing me from playing Nintendo, doing my best to keep my mind locked shut against the insidious advances of my dad’s lame taste.
Richard Thompson was a name I heard a lot growing up. My dad insisted he was one of the best guitarists of all time, perhaps even the best. He was right. Thompson got his start playing in the highly influential Fairport Convention, and while that band was and is incredible in its own right, to my ears it was Thompson’s guitar playing on the early records that outshined his surroundings, even Sandy Denny’s stunning vocal. (Check out the end of the epic “Matty Groves” to hear them both at their best.) Even within the confines of that more traditional band, Thompson’s playing was explosive. By the time he started releasing his own records a few years later, he’d take it even further.
“The End Of The Rainbow” is a subdued little downer taken from Thompson’s best album, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, recorded as part of a duo with his then-wife Linda Thompson. It’s a pitch-black meditation on fatherhood, with a new father looking down at his infant son and explaining exactly how horrible the world really is: “Life seems so rosy in the cradle, but I’ll be a friend, I’ll tell you what’s in store / There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow / There’s nothing to grow up for anymore.”
Thompson’s guitar is held in check throughout the song, but his restrained leads still cut like razor wire. A gentle melody punctuates the verses, underlining the vocal and drawing out the pain in a way Thompson’s voice can’t on its own. The phrasing of the chords throughout the chorus is simply sublime. As for the lyrics: It’s never easy to tell how much humor Thompson intends, because there’s always painful truth behind them.