There are three narratives outside the songs in Hayden Childs’ examination of Shoot Out The Lights - the one about Richard and Linda Thompson as they record the album (er, twice) and their relationship ends, the one about a fictional couple named Virgil and Bonny with lives nearly parallel to the Thompsons, and the one about Dante in the Inferno as Virgil leads him into hell.
The narrative about Richard and Linda Thompson is strong, and notably careful about how their break-up comes into it - the songs were written and recorded before Richard met Nancy Covey, but “even if, by his word, Richard did not intend to leave Linda when he wrote the songs on Shoot Out the Lights, he certainly called up an emotion that he couldn’t put down”. (Given how emotionally excoriating the lyrics are, the significance of the timeline pales a little in considering that they toured together in support of the album after the break-up.)
The album has eight songs, and the book nine chapters (and six appendices). The first sets out the characters, and also the framework for the recording. The album released in 1982 was produced by Joe Boyd (incidentally Linda’s former fiancé) who signed them to his Hannibal label, but there was a version recorded in 1980 with Gerry Rafferty that had six of the same songs (and failed to get them a contract) - referring to the latter as Rafferty’s Folly, Childs manages to discuss both of these recordings throughout without it becoming confusing.
The chapters beyond tackle a song each, and Childs notes in the first one that Richard Thompson had a gift for sequencing, while Childs then uses these songs to tell the story of the album fluidly. The most compelling for me was the fourth, dealing with ‘Man In Need’ and Sufism, withdrawal from modern life and the contrast between how Richard and Linda fared in their experiences of communes - I suppose I hadn’t fully considered how this song would read in this context, especially because (as Childs points out) it’s kind of power pop, “bouncy, cheerful and catchy” . The third chapter, loosely around ‘Walking On A Wire’, is strong on the composition of the song and also the relationship to ‘The Great Valerio’ (from I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight), and it has me concentrating now on more than just Linda’s vocals.
‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?’ - seventh track, eighth chapter - marks the point where the album and Virgil and Bonny begin to actively detract from one another, with Bonny’s death mirroring much of the one in the lyrics. ‘Wall of Death’ - eighth, ninth and final - feels like it gets short shrift, a nice few paragraphs on the fairground imagery and a good synopsis of What Richard and Linda Did Next, but it’s like time ran out. The final paragraph before the appendices takes the evocative, brutal title of the album and paraphrases it repeatedly into Virgil’s life, and not to good effect.
I’m extremely fond of the album. It’s the work of mature, experienced musicians with a huge musical vocabulary and technical ability, and it’s staggeringly potent, and the potency of the album itself is what kills the side narratives. Beside it, Dante seems petty and grandiose, and Bonny and Virgil don’t register much at best, and they distract from the unfussy strength of Childs’ writing about the recording and the lyrics.