ON "Mock Tudor," his latest album and arguably most ambitious work, British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson defies literary dictum. He goes home again, revisiting the cultural wasteland of suburban London in the '50s, the poprevolution that consumed his homeland a decade later, and its aftermath.
But the British folk-rock pioneer, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past 15 years, didn't need to shuttle back and forth to London to spark his songwriting. He discovered a long time ago that a little time spent in, say, idyllic Hawaii always provides sufficient inspiration.
"I find that a beach and tropical foliage is a good incentive to write about almost anything," says Thompson with a laugh, speaking on the phone during a recent sound check in Bristol, England. "I wish people would send me there more often."
Thus, most of the songs on "Mock Tudor" were composed on the road or on retreat in America, with Thompson summoning memories from a distance before crafting a series of vividly drawn vignettes, by turns caustic and compassionate, tender and witty. The song cycle opens with "Cocksferry Queen," which adds yet another memorable real-life character to Thompson's impressive portrait gallery.
"He was a club owner -- nasty, horrible, mean, Mafia-connected," recalls Thompson, who performs at the Birchmere on Thursday night. "One of those `I'll-knock-your-kneecaps-off' kind of guys. And then after six months, we went back to the club and he was unrecognizable, someone had slipped him some acid and he had this hippie girlfriend he was totally obsessed with. He was actually wearing a caftan, beads and sandals, hugging everybody. I'm sure he's reverted to being a hood again."
Another song on the album with obvious autobiographic overtones is "That's All, Amen, Close the Door," a bittersweet remembrance of the late singer Sandy Denny, who like Thompson was once a member of Fairport Convention. The album is dedicated in part to Denny and the British songwriter and guitarist Nick Drake, another friend who died young.
"Sandy and Nick are still underrated as musicians and for their contributions," says Thompson. "I think that's a shame. I think that if there are books and reissued albums out there now -- and that if a Nick Drake song pops up on an easy-listening station every now and then -- I think that's great. I wish their cult were wider."
Divided into three sections chronologically, from the early '50s to the present, "Mock Tudor" marks Thompson's first collaboration with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, best known for their work with Elliot Smith, the Foo Fighters and Beck. The album was recorded in Hollywood, at the same studio where Gene Vincent recorded "Be-Bop-A-Lula." Like Thompson's recent studio work with Mitchell Froom, the production is lean and rock-driven, but less clangorous.
"It's trying to be garage in a different way, if you like," Thompson says of the album, which features some of his most searing guitar work. "With Mitchell, we were trying to be crude. This is also crude, but it's a different approach to crude. But I think it suits the songs very well."
On tour, Thompson is emphasizing his new work, kicking off his concerts with several songs from the album before moving on to older and more familiar material.
"The audience expects to be challenged and I think that's terrific," he says. "I've tried not to pander to my audience over the years. I think because of that the audience is now in the position of challenging me -- to be unpredictable, to do new stuff. That's a very nice relationship to have."
Of course, he adds, composing is always difficult -- on a certain level, at least. "I'm trying to write less to make sure that better stuff comes out. It's easy to write 40 songs of which only five are any good. So I'm trying to make them count for more."
His current road band includes his son Teddy, a promising singer-songwriter and guitarist who will release his major label debut album next year. Along with Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III, Stephen Stills, Leonard Cohen and other musicians who arrived on the pop scene in the '60s, Thompson now views music-making as a family tradition.
"I've never pushed Teddy musically," he says. "It's always been his own interest and self-motivation, really. That's taken him to where he is now and I think that's really ideal. I like that he's in music and the generational thing. I think in families there's a way of learning you don't get anywhere else. I'm glad he's part of that."
So now that he's lived here for much of his adult life, does Thompson see the day when he'll devote an entire album to life in contemporary America?
"Absolutely," he declares. "In fact, I have plans for just such a thing."
RICHARD THOMPSON -- Appearing Thursday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Richard Thompson, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)