In a typical Richard Thompson concert—if the word "typical" applies to a musician who uses the stage to reinvent his songs one moment at a time each night—Thompson lets the band rest for a few tracks and plays a stretch of solo, acoustic songs. It's always a highlight, making it all the more surprising that Thompson has spent so little time exploring this side on his albums. An acoustic project would seem a natural fit, particularly following Thompson's departure from the pressures of a major label. In fact, Thompson cut the acoustic Front Parlour Ballads virtually by himself. The few moments of outside assistance are the exceptions on an album produced and performed in his home studio.
Perhaps he needs the pressure or the camaraderie. Perhaps not. But for some reason, Thompson sounds detached from the songs on Front Parlour Ballads, even though he's in the thick of them. The album starts well: "Let It Blow" joins the ranks of Thompson's coruscating character studies, offering a portrait of a serial bridegroom who will soon be on his way ("When the bride's veil lifted / His mind soon drifted") and the woman who may be his perfect match. On the winning "Miss Patsy," an errant lover pledges his devotion and asks for a little more patience, in waltz time. But otherwise, the standouts are few. Thompson mockingly sings the praises of solitude on "A Solitary Life," but the jokes die against a melody that goes nowhere and then just ends. Much of Ballads sounds similarly half-developed, as if Thompson made an album for an audience of one, then decided to release it anyway. There's nothing wrong with it, but Thompson has proven many times over that he's capable of much better work.