In the epochal rock book Mystery Train, critic Greil Marcus argued that great American artists are distinguished by their desire to reach a wide audience; even if the artist fails, this empathy shines through in the work. Had Marcus pondered the career of Richard Thompson instead of Randy Newman, he might have reached a different conclusion. Yes, Thompson is British, not American, but he is a quintessential cult artist who hasn't had an honest shot at stardom in about 25 years. It's possible that Thompson hoped his new Sweet Warrior would become the unlikeliest number-one album in the history of Billboard—who knows, it still might happen—but it's more likely he imagined it reaching his small but passionately loyal fan base, and not much beyond.
If that's the case, it hardly seems to dampen the vital Sweet Warrior. In fact, Thompson remains a shining example of an artist producing quality work well into his 50s, in part because he doesn't have to worry about the pressures of an increasingly volatile marketplace. Which is another way of saying that Sweet Warrior doesn't include a Timbaland remix featuring Justin Timberlake, just the gently rocking, bleakly detailed folk tunes Thompson is known for. The anti-war number "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" evocatively describes a soldier's paranoia on the sand dunes of Iraq, leaving the empty sloganeering to Neil Young. Elsewhere, Thompson chronicles more personal battles with characteristic defiance (the bitterly funny "Mr. Stupid") and regret (the achingly lovely "Take Care The Road You Choose"). Running nearly 70 minutes, Sweet Warrior is perhaps too indulgent in the album's flabbier second half. But fans surely are happy to let Richard be Richard.